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By Wes O’Donnell
Special Contributor, Online Career Tips
Small talk is often unavoidable, whether you’re in an uncomfortable seat on an airplane or standing around at the company holiday party.
For many of us, especially the more introverted, small talk is both awkward and emotionally painful. While it may be more comfortable to say the bare minimum to someone, you miss out on a huge opportunity to make new friends, reinforce old relationships and network.
Let’s face it: Everyone says the same type of things when they engage in small talk. But with a little verbal jiu-jitsu, you appear more confident, charismatic and engaged and even create new business opportunities.
#1: Start Small Talk by Encouraging People to Open Up and Talk about Themselves
I can often predict what someone will say when they sit down next to me on an airplane, if they say anything at all. Strangers who don’t initially make eye contact with you typically won’t say anything. For those that do, the first words for many are “How are you?”
According to Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison, “’How are you’ are the three most useless words in the world of communication. The person asking doesn’t really want to know, and the person responding doesn’t tell the truth. What follows is a lost opportunity and a meaningless exchange with zero connection.”
If you meet someone whom you already know — perhaps at a company function — use your knowledge of that person to open the conversation with a more detailed greeting. For instance, “Hi Jennifer, great to see you! I bet your kids are getting big.”
Everyone loves to talk about themselves. It’s human nature. You will always come across as more charismatic when you take a genuine interest in the life of your companion.
Getting strangers to open up is more difficult, but not impossible. My favorite cold open is “Hi, you remind me of a famous actor [or actress], I just can’t put my finger on who. Is there anyone you relate to?” What follows is usually a humorous and authentic conversation.
I used this line once on a gentleman while I was sandwiched between him and a woman, both strangers to me, on a flight from Chicago to Detroit. The result was amazing. Once the conversation started, the woman joined in. I got off the plane with two new business contacts and a couple of free Detroit Red Wings tickets from the man.
#2: Stop Talking About the Weather
Unless you are an actual meteorologist, avoid discussing “this crazy weather we’re having.” This tired, recurring motif is always a conversation opener or closer.
For instance, I have a beloved family member in Texas whom I speak with at least once a week. I can tell when he runs out of things to say because, like clockwork, he asks about the weather “up there” in Michigan.
The goal here is to avoid dead-end conversations and mentioning the weather almost always leads to an awkward stop. Imagine riding in an elevator with a complete stranger and he says “Man, it’s bitter cold out there today, huh?”
After that type of opener, there is really nowhere to go with the conversation. You could disagree or agree; after all, the weather is subjective; some people like the cold. But most people would probably answer with “sure is” and then stare awkwardly at the floor numbers as they click by.
By the way, what would happen if you were in an elevator with a complete stranger and you realized you wanted to say something to him. Instead of wasting time thinking about what to say, you could just turn to that person and say, “I’m trying to think of the right thing to say to you right now!”
That would feel so authentic and vulnerable that I guarantee it would lead to a great conversation. Acknowledging the awkwardness of small talk and turning it into something humorous is always a great tactic for a conversation opener.
#3: Comment about Your Surroundings
Always take in your surroundings before you start small talk; there is always going to be a conversation enhancer within visual range. For example, imagine that you are in a colleague’s office and she has a model of a racecar on her desk. You might say, “That’s really cool. What’s the story behind that racecar?”
Being aware of your surroundings while simultaneously being involved in a conversation takes practice. You don’t want it to let your eyes wander; someone else could perceive that as boredom with the conversation.
Even if you are just two people mingling at an office party, the other person’s clothes might have something unique such as a lapel pin, a tie or cufflinks. That adornment could serve as a great springboard for a great question that will result in unique answers.
The key is to be enthusiastic about things that would otherwise be mundane. That enthusiasm is contagious.
#4: Encourage People to Elaborate
During conversations, we are all guilty of just waiting until it’s our turn to talk and not paying true attention to what the other person says. To truly get the most out of small talk, you have to be engaged. This includes actually listening to the other person.
Body language plays a big role here. Sincere nodding, eye contact and leaning in (but not too far) all go a long way to show that you are engaged.
I have had conversations during which the other person’s eyes start darting around the room or their feet start pointing toward the door. I take that as a sign that I need to end the conversation quickly. Either I’m boring them or that person really needs to go to the restroom.
When it’s your turn to talk, go into more details than the bare minimum. For example, you don’t just live in Southern California and are going to school to acquire an engineering degree. You live in Southern California because you love the gorgeous weather and you study engineering because you are fascinated with the way things work.
These types of details open the door to more unique responses that could result in opportunities that you would otherwise not have had.
#5: Close Big and Be Grateful
A lot of people don’t know how to end a conversation. Many of us think we need to keep the conversation going or risk looking rude.
In the formal settings of meetings or conference calls, it always ends with “next steps” and “thanks for everyone’s time.” Why not use “next steps” and a “thank you” in an informal setting as well?
When a conversation is coming to a natural end, it might be useful to say that you would love to discuss what you talked about again in the future (next steps) and end with a grateful closer. You could say, “Wow, it was so awesome talking to you. I’m grateful that we had this opportunity” or “I really learned a lot!” (the thank you).
“Thank you” and “thanks” are overused as conversation enders. Swap them out for something unique and stand out with “I’m grateful” followed by why you’re grateful.
Instead of just a boring “thanks,” how about “I’m grateful we had a chance to talk, because I now understand (fill in the blanks) a lot better.”
This minor switch will really go a long way in making the other person feel valuable. This, in turn, increases your social appeal.
It’s perfectly fine to disengage; after all, time is valuable. Don’t be afraid to end the conversation, but be sure to end it on a good note.
Remember that People Are Social
We are social machines and conversation is the fuel that keeps us going. How you perceive small talk dictates your enjoyment of it.
Stop thinking of small talk as a necessary chore and start seeing it as the opportunity that it is. Get the other person to talk about themselves. A recent Harvard study found that in a dating scenario, those who asked more questions of their partner were better liked by their date.
Ask questions, find unique topics and be authentic to turn small talk into success.