Tips for Making Small Talk, Confidently: Why do it and how to do it

Some people complain that small-talk is superficial and pointless. Often ‘not seeing the point’ is about ‘nor knowing the rules’. You may worry that you’re being boring or too banal or to confessional and controversial. You may not know what topics to choose and what to avoid. Small-talk is a key building block in building relationships. It all begins with ‘a bit of banter’ or ‘chit-chat’ to ‘pass the time of day’. Connecting with other people in a positive way is a way of boosting your resilience and confidence.

This post offers some tips and pointers for confident small-talk skills (adapted from Unlock Your Confidence), which are essentially the same as a basic grounding in communication skills. (There are also several links to posts containing supporting information).

What if I’m too shy to initiate small-talk?

They keys to learning any new skill are practice and relaxation. Often people who claim not to be very good at making conversation just need to practice in some low-threat situation. The easiest way is to ask for directions in a supermarket or ask someone’s opinion about a product. I’m particular good at reading maps, contrary to the male gender stereotype, I’ll just stop to ask directions. When I visit a new place I check it out online to find recommendations of places to eat and drink. However, many of the best information comes asking the locals. People like to recommend good places and warn you about the ‘no so good’. People like to share their knowledge.

Relaxation is the cornerstone of elite performanceIt’s also the basis of building confidence and esteem. It’s  the ability to control your own physiological responses. A few deep breaths is often all it takes. If you initiate a conversation in a relaxed state, the other person is more likely to match this state. If you both feel comfortable the conversation flows. So focus on putting the other person at ease too. This is a key principle in my confidence building workshops. If we focus on putting the other people at ease and building confidence in them, this rubs off on to us.

It helps to practice some form of relaxation technique or breathing technique regularly and frequently. The more you practice, the more it is likely to become habit, or ‘second nature’.

Small-talk is not about ‘just filling the space’

When I started contributing to radio features, I was very aware of empty airspace. Radio presenters are aware of this and use the discomfort of the contributors to let them chatter away and fill the airspace. On one occasion, with a rather ‘difficult’ presenter, I realized that the responsibility for the dead airspace was his. I resisted the temptation to fill the space and just kept to what I was comfortable saying. I’d made it clear beforehand that I don’t gossip about celebrities and yet he insisted on asking about a particular celebrity. I just ‘stuck to my guns’ and he owned the responsibility for the dead space and asked me a question I could answer.

We are much likely to get the ‘verbal diarrhoea’ when we are nervous. Take a few deep breaths. Any question is a two-way street and it both people share in the responsibility for the ‘awkward silences’. When we feel stressed, the silences seem longer. When stressed we talk faster. Just remember that it’s okay if there are a few gaps. Every conversation has a little variation and changes in pace. It doesn’t have to be a ‘wall of sound’.

Small-talk is also about listening not just talk

Listening is a core communication skill. People often overlook this. Rather than filling the space with our own words you can give the other person a chance and ask a few questions. A ‘bore’ is jokingly defined as ‘a person who wants to talk about her/himself when you want to talk about yourself’. As a general rule, if you have spoken about yourself for 60 seconds then you have already been speaking too much. An easy way to include the other person is just to tag on the words ‘and how about you?’

The great thing about small talk is that it can take unexpected ‘twists and turns’ if you let it. It works better if you don’t have an agenda and just see how things go. It doesn’t really matter if you don’t get to make all of your points. So be flexible. There is a temptation, when the other person is speaking, to just ‘screen for keywords’ so you can prepare your next contribution. When you find yourself doing this, it means you have stopped listening. Part of the fun of small-talk is you don’t know where it will lead.

If you lose the thread, just ask the other person, ‘tell me more about. . . ‘. Then you get a second chance to practice your listening skills!

Open and closed questions: how to move the conversation a long

You have probably seen interviews of famous people where the interviewer has branded them ‘difficult’ or ‘uncooperative’. There’s a classic clip of a famous Hollywood star who mainly answers ‘yep’ and ‘nope’ to most of the questions. It’s clear than the interviewer asked too many closed questions that only required one word answers, usually ‘yes’ or ‘no’. It’s obvious that if you ask someone ‘Do you like X’ you get a very different response if you ask ‘How do you feel about X?’ or ‘What’s your opinion of X?’. Asking questions with a ‘who, what, where or how‘, will open out the conservation. That’s why they are called open questions. Closed questions are all about the questoner’s agenda. Open questions help along the two-way conversation.

Be patient: The other person may not know all of these small-talk tips

If someone launches into a monologue, just be patient. Not everyone knows the rules of small-talk. Sometimes, we just have to accept the opportunity to practice patience and practice listening skills. Of course, any experience is also an opportunity for reflection. This is important to learning any skill. So sometime after the encounter, just pause and make a few notes about how it went. There’s no need for a full-scale post-mortem. Just a couple of learning points will do.

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodIn my book Unlock Your Confidence, I offer a whole chapter (Chapter Four, to be precise) on practical tips and techniques for impression management (making good first impressions) and communication skills including suitable topics for casual conversations and topics more likely to promote heated discussions, scare people or bore them to tears.

What are suitable subjects for small-talk?

Here are a few examples of the kind of topics suitable for small-talk:

Saying where you are from, a recent film or television programme you enjoyed, saying what you do and where you go to relax, pets, recreation interests, books you’ve read, your name, food, the weather, clothes, holidays, places to visit, theatre productions, concerts and commenting on something in the immediate environment.

What subjects should be avoided for small-talk?

Here are some topics that you should avoid:

Talking about ailments, sex dreams, religion, being a know-it-all, discussing your sex life or asking questions about theirs, talking about infidelity or swinging, asking someone’s salary, asking whether people own their own home, racism, political correctness, politics, paedophilia, capital punishment, abortion, vivisection, animal rights, pornography, discussing bodily fluids or body parts that have gone septic or the power of prayer as a tool against evil.

A good test is to consider, is this the kind of topic you would discuss over afternoon tea? Think of scones, jam. clotted cream, little sandwiches with the crusts cut-off and a nice pot of Earl Grey tea. Now add your topic of conversation. Does it go? Theatre productions: yes. Septic body parts: no!.

As a general rule, keep it positive. Yes, we all like a bit of moan from time to time, but follow the 80:20 rule. The moaning can not be more than 20% of the conversation. This is easier said than done. Once you are on a negative train of thought, it’s more difficult to switch to the positive.

Casual conversations: How to get started

Never underestimate the power of a smile. It’s an immediate signal that you are an approachable person. Of course, that doesn’t mean you walk around with a fixed rictus grin. (That’s a sure sign of something else entirely).

Assume you are meeting someone for the first time. You exchange named. That immediately leads on to ‘What do you do?’ This is a coded phrase for ‘what’s your job?’ It can be a little dull, unless you are in those dreadful networking situations where people stand about handing out business cards and try to work out whether you are of any use to them whatsoever.

As a twist, try asking ‘How do you spend your time?’ Or ‘How do you like to spend your time?’ This gives the other person the opportunity to talk about something they like. This generates positive feelings which are to a certain extent projected on to you. Some people hate their jobs but most people love their own hobbies and pastimes.

Small-talk and body language

Probably, you will have heard of the often quoted body-language myth that words only account for 7% in any encounter. Take this with the proverbial pinch of salt. The research was carried out in laboratory conditions and may not be generalizable to the real world to the stricy 7% rule that is often (mis) quoted. The research mainly applies to first impressions. It’s fair say that if you give off the right non-verbal signals then the words are less important.

You don’t have to study a whole body language book to get the basics right. In fact, we have already covered most of it: relax and smile and show an interest in what is being said, that is, listen. If you do this then the body language will take care of itself.

So that’s it. Those are the basic skills for a succesful casual conversation. These also form the basics for good communication skills. Small-talk skills are a great set of skills to have. It means that you can take the lead in awkward situations, especially where people don’t know each other. It’s rare that efforts are rebuffed, most of the time, people are just relieved that someone broke the ice.

With small-talk, perhaps the most important tip is just to have fun with it.

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