How to Make Small Talk
One of the most feared activities is making small talk (usually right up there with making presentations and the round table "let's introduce ourselves"). It can be even more difficult if you find yourself feeling anxious in some social situations. You can feel more comfortable by learning the secrets of great small talk.
Some people find it easy enough to say "Hello" or "How's it going?" or other such conversation starter but then find themselves at a loss of words after that. Then comes the inevitable discomfort and search for what to say next.
Want to avoid that "dreaded silence" where you suddenly run out of conversation, freeze up, cough, and desperately search for something good to say?
The art of small talk is a skill you can learn and practice until you master it. Here are some tips and strategies you can use to become better at small talk.
Let's look at some basic tips first. Enough to keep almost any conversation going. If you'd like to become even better and even more comfortable there are ways to become quite savvy with the art of small talk. But let's start small first.......
Just what do you say after "hello"?
Every conversation is different. However, there are some key elements that make up a satisfying conversation. We can think of these elements as ingredients we mix together to cook a tasty dish.
Small Talk Special Sauce Ingredients
Ingredient 1: An attitude of self-acceptance, letting go of self-judgment.
It helps a great deal to leave self judgment, self monitoring, and self assessment behind. Learning and practicing to develop an outward focus on what others are saying and doing is a key to conversing well.
This can be a tall order for anyone with social anxiety, but you can learn to do this and the more you practice the more comfortable you will be. You may find that it helps to have a trusted friend or a mentor to practice with first, and then slowly, step by step gain practice with others. Practising in a safe, comfortable supportive environment helps.
Ingredient 2: An open, interested, inquisitive mind
Stay present and develop a sincere interest in connecting with and finding out more about the person you are speaking with. People can tell if you are just "trying to get through the dreaded necessity of small talk", if you would rather be somewhere else, or if you are so internally focused on how you are coming across that you are not really paying any attention to them.
Ingredient 3: Great listening skills. Listen, really listen, when the other person is talking.
You may feel that you already have good listening skills. However, many people actually stop listening and become immersed instead with worrying about what the other person is thinking about them, wondering what to say next, and focusing on internal feelings of anxiety.
Staying silent is not the same thing as listening.
People can tell if you are really listening to them. If you are actually busy composing what you will say next, worrying about how you look, worrying about what they think of you, it shows. This has the effect of shutting down the conversation and breaking the social connection.
Ingredient 4: Relax! Utilize relaxation techniques to help you stay calm and focused
There are a wide variety of relaxation techniques you can call upon to give yourself the grounding sense of calm presence you need to concentrate and enjoy the conversation.
Some excellent relaxation techniques include mindfuless, deep calming breathing, self hypnosis and guided meditation. Using these techniques on a regular basis will enable you to call upon a feeling of relaxation when you need it.
Other Small Talk Tips & Techniques
Recognize that most conversations begin "situationally"
Most conversations begin with a comment, opinion or question about the common situation you share. With a total stranger, the conversation might first center on the location you are in (slow bus ride, hot weather, interesting conference, exciting movie)
With a person you have met before, the conversation might first center on what common connection you already share (work in the same building, taking the same course, children in the same school, neighbourhood events, news about a friend in common, comments about current events)
Most people are not conversational superstars! You don't need to be one either
People who are socially anxious often have artificially high standards that they have set for themselves.
While there are people who are conversational masters that dazzle everyone around them, those people are rare. Most people just talk about ordinary things in ordinary ways
Most conversations start out about ordinary topics, and continue on that way. Conversation is not really just about the topic. It's really about making a small connection with another person.
Conversations are definitely not the place to invite your "inner critic" to. Most conversations are just about regular things.
Use a mix of statements, opinions, open ended questions and closed ended questions.
The most effective conversations usually consist of a variety of types of language and include:
statements "This game is really a close match!";
opinions "I love the way they organized that jewelery display";
open ended questions "What did you do this summer?";
closed ended questions "Do you like chocolate cake?"
Using a mix of these types of conversational modes usually makes for the best conversational flow.
Carry your weight in the conversation.
People with social anxiety often use the strategy of trying to "float" through the conversation, by simply asking questions and allowing the other party to do most of the talking. While this strategy may take the pressure off the person who feels socially anxious, if the whole conversation continues this way, it can start to feel like more of an interrogation for the person being questioned.
In addition, the person doing all the talking ends up learning nothing about you, which will reduce the sense of connection achieved.
Live your life in such a way that you have something to talk about, something to share with others.
You probably already have a variety of experiences, opinions and observations to share with others.
But if you have been keeping yourself isolated and are feeling that you have little to talk about, keep in touch with current events by watching the news, reading newspapers, or otherwise keeping in touch with what is happening in your community, school or workplace.
Let the conversation continue naturally using a technique called "conversation threading"
You may have heard the word "thread" used to describe a topic of conversation on an internet forum, or to describe a trail or pathway that a conversation can take.
By really listening to what the other person says you can pull out an enormous variety of other possible conversation topics you can move the conversation towards.
Never be at loss for things to talk about again!
Here's how to do it...
Listen to each comment the other person says and notice the "threads" or topics that you can use to branch off from.
For example let's say the person you are speaking with says "Last week I watched a documentary on TV about whale watching." This statement has 4 different possible threads you could follow and channel the conversation towards, depending upon your interests.
The thread topics are highlighted for demonstration purposes.
The other person says - "Last week I watched a documentary on TV about whale watching."
From this one statement you could move the conversation in several directions by commenting or asking a question about any of the 4 highlighted topics.
You could say:
"Whale watching? We did that last year off the coast of Alaska. It was one of the best experiences in my life.
OR I've always wanted to do that! What happened in the documentary?"
and later "Oh well I just love watching TV. I didn't see the whale watching show, but I've been watching "Orange is the New Black", have you seen that?"
OR later "I once thought about making a documentary myself - it was about the topic of homesteading. We started out filming cattle and I dropped my video-camera in the cow waterer!"
OR I'm sorry I missed that documentary about whale watching. It sounds really interesting. But I was so busy last week I couldn't watch TV, I had to study for my final test in bartending and mixology.
You can see that your comments and questions also provide several possible threads for the other person to direct the conversation with too!
Using this method, you will seriously never, ever run out of topics to talk about!
Remember to lighten up -- this is not a test or a contest!
With practice you will learn to relax, lighten up and be able to radiate your true self. You will end up actually having fun doing the thing you used to dread most!