13 ways to get better at small talk
Users on Reddit and question-and-answer site Quora say a little bit of flattery and knowledge of current events goes a long way
In a recent article for Wired magazine, Kristin Berman and behavioural economist Dan Ariely share their experience hosting a dinner party with one key rule: “Absolutely no small talk.”
Apparently, the guests were all the happier for it — and the authors conclude in their headline that “small talk should be banned.”
Whether this sounds to you like a great idea or a terrifying prospect, the fact is that most event organisers won’t go so far as to prohibit small talk — so you’d best get good at it.
To help you out, we checked out Quora, Reddit, and other resources, and highlighted some of the best tips for upping your small-talk game. You can even make a habit of practising with strangers you’ll probably never see again, since research suggests that making conversation with fellow commuters leaves people happier.
Read on to impress new acquaintances — and yourself — with your masterful conversation skills.
1. Demonstrate interest in your conversation partner
Several Quora users noted that the best way to keep a conversation rolling is to show you care about what the other person has to say.
“If you don’t fundamentally care about the person you are speaking with, that will show, and that may be the primary reason why you are running out of things to discuss,” writes Kai Peter Chang.
That also means letting your conversation partner share information about himself or herself.
“Let the other person speak more,” writes Anam Gulraiz. “People LOVE talking about themselves.”
2. Ask open-ended questions
Instead of asking yes/no questions that lead to dead ends, encourage your conversation partner to share some more detail about his or her life.
“In general, open-ended questions lead to more conversational paths,” says Craig Welland.
For example, instead of asking a fellow party guest, “Are you here with your family?” you might ask, “How did you meet the host?”
3. Allow your conversation partner to teach you
“If there’s a subject you’re not familiar with, just be honest with that person and nine out of 10 times they’ll teach you about it,” writes Michael Wong.
It goes back to that central idea of letting other people do most of the talking. Asking the other person to explain what they mean implies they’ll be talking for at least another few minutes.
4. Read the news
In the days leading up to a social function, take time to peruse the news, “including the sections that don’t really interest you,” writes Mark Simchock.
That way, if a conversation should come to an abrupt halt, you can fill the silence with, “Hey, did you hear about …” or “Man, how about that … ?”
5. Share anecdotes
Don’t hesitate to let your conversation partner know that you can relate to what he or she is telling you, says Ellen Vrana.
“This forms a bond,” she adds.
For example, if your partner says he or she spent time living in another country and you did as well, share a story or two about your years abroad. You’ll likely prompt the other person to tell you about some similar memories.
6. Practice the FORM technique
Robert Adams uses a special mnemonic to keep conversations flowing easily:
•F-amily: Do you have kids? Where is your family from? How long have you lived around here?
•O-ccupation: What do you do for a living? What is that like? Have you always been a circus acrobat?
•R-ecreation: What do you guys do for fun? How long have you been involved in SCA? Where do you buy chain-mail, or did you make it yourself?
•M-oney: What happened with the price of gas? Did you see that last school-bond issue? How do you think the new liquor-store laws will shake out? Anybody you know lose their job lately?
7. Be honest
“There’s nothing wrong with just saying, ‘You know, I hate small talk, so how about we talk about something big?’“ writes Derek Scruggs.
Chances are, your conversation partner will feel somewhat relieved.
Scruggs recommends having on hand a few “big” questions that promote intimacy, including, “What’s something that scared you today?” and “Are you happy with your current lifestyle?”
8. Copy good conversationalists
“Listen to comedians, listen to talk show hosts, listen to real people,” recommends Edahn Small.
Try to remember the kinds of questions they ask, how they follow up on the other person’s answers, and even how they make use of silence. Chances are good that they learned the same way.
9. Boost your conversation partner’s self-esteem
Flatter people in order to capture and hold their interest, suggests Joe Goebel.
“Try to make everyone you talk with feel a little better about themselves after having met and talked to you,” he writes.
10. Practice with everyone you meet
Whether it’s the doorman at work or a fellow passenger on the train, try your hand at small talk with everyone, says Rohan Sinha.
Eventually, you’ll start feeling more comfortable striking up and maintaining interesting conversations.
11. Use the ARE format
Andrian Iliopoulos uses a method from communications expert Carol Fleming:
•A-nchor: Find something you two have in common right now. For example, “This cocktail is really fancy, what’s in it?”
•R-eveal: Share something personal with the other person. For example, “I tried a similar cocktail at a beach bar in Malibu last year and it blew me away.”
•E-ncourage: Invite them to share something personal. For example, “I can see it in your eyes that you hate cocktails. You are more of a whiskey drinker, aren’t you?”
12. Ask a better version of, ‘What do you do?’
In a 2013 blog post, bestselling author Gretchen Rubin suggests asking people you meet: “What’s keeping you busy these days?”
Writes Rubin, “It’s useful because it allows people to choose their focus (work, volunteer, family, hobby) — preferable to the inevitable question (well, inevitable at least in New York City): ‘What do you do?’“
13. Know that other people feel weird, too
“You are totally not alone in feeling awkward or shy,” writes Tammy_Tangerine on Reddit. “Other people are struggling with that as well, and these feelings are totally ok and nothing to feel ashamed about.”
She adds that even people who look incredibly confident may be struggling with the same self-doubts that you are.
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