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Published on July 2, 2018

Make Your Next Small Talk Interesting and Easy (A Step-By-Step Guide)

Make Your Next Small Talk Interesting and Easy (A Step-By-Step Guide)

Imagine standing in front of two people and you are frozen and unable to speak.

That is what happened to me years ago at a medical conference. I’m not a physician; this conversation was before my presentation to a group of physicians. I was a stranger to these two men. I needed to introduce myself. My body and brain were suspended in fear, I was unable to come up with the simplest small talk, and it had me praying that someone would interrupt us.

After a few of those experiences, I realized I had Asperger Syndrome. One of its unique traits is social awkwardness.

Part of my success in shifting this was learning how conversations actually work. I couldn’t go from being an introvert to an extrovert if I wanted to, and I didn’t. I did want to enjoy speaking to people.

I continued to read the list of “shoulds” that others give us about how we should act. I don’t know how you feel but much of what we are told feels unauthentic to me. The “fake it till you make it” aphorism tells us to deny our own experience and behave in a way others dictate for us.

There is a lot of pressure to successfully converse with others in professional, social and romantic situations. And this is expected to happen with no training in how to emotionally connect with another person.

Add that to the fact that in the United States, small talk is woven into our social fabric. For a non-native who is not accustomed to the subtleties of small talk, their literal interpretations get them in trouble.

The journey to connection

The problem isn’t small talk; it’s small connections.

Let’s explore how to use small talk to not just fill time, but to also build connections. Rather than dread a casual conversation, you can enjoy it for how it makes you feel more connected to others. What was fake and superficial can become steps to meaningfully relate to another person.

First, we start with a new frame. Instead of a prescribed list of what you should do, let’s discover what is authentic for you. We begin with what we call the ROC Formula: Relax, Open and Connect. The Relax is slowing down to experience what is occurring for yourself.

In the past, my brain would speed up thinking of all the things I could say, analyzing them and then rejecting them. All this was occurring as the person was standing there and the pressure was building. I was anything but relaxed and slowed down. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t say anything that I liked.

Not being able to perform, I gave up. I did the only thing I could do: slow down and accept what I was feeling. These were the times when my emotions, brain and words were connected in such a way that a conversation would arise.

It wasn’t any genius that had me discover how to transcend small talk; it was desperation.

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If you choose to travel down this path, don’t expect immediate results. I will say that others who I have coached have reached a place where connected small talk is the norm. A caveat: you will not be able to connect with everyone in a deep way. Sometimes people won’t want to go there, other times the situation may be rushed.

The key principles of mastering small talk

1. Set the space

In our couples work, we speak about the Third Body in the relationship. The relationship itself is its own body. For a healthy relationship, that Third Body needs to be honored. In a casual interaction, there is a developing Third Body.

When you know it is there, you can track it. Observe and feel the quality of your interaction. It takes practice to maintain multiple awareness. You are tracking your experience, the person(s) you are speaking to, and the relationship between you.

No need to stress here. Tracking is being open to noticing a shift. Much like a cougar notices the moment signaling that there is a deer in the forest, you can notice some movement. The more aware you are of your own experience, the easier you notice others.

Even a casual interactions between a new acquaintance demand emotional safety to succeed. Allowing yourself to feel, send the message through mirror neurons to those you are speaking to that it is okay for them to feel their experience.

When a space is not safe, our survival systems are on alert setting up a defensive relationship. The person may not behave defensively, he or she may portray that things are fine. To the extent safety is not present, you have the beginning of an inauthentic interaction.

An introvert will need more time to feel safe. Let them. It might mean slowing down the conversation.

Taking the first emotional risk as subtle as it may be will have others feeling safe. That might mean initiating the conversation. Alternatively, it could be speaking in a vulnerable way.

2. Have a sense of what you want

As you enter into a conversation, ask yourself what you want: It might be to enjoy the interaction; it might be to learn more; or maybe you want to get to know the person.

Clarifying your intent gives you focus which will guide you in what to say.

3. Care about the person

When you care about a person, it makes it much easier to connect.

As you begin, find something you immediately like about the person: It could be the sweater they are wearing; it could be how open they are.

Connecting to what you like makes you feel safer and may give you an opening to your conversation. A genuine compliment is always a good opening line.

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Let go of needing to be smart, looking good, in control and right.

4. Deepen the conversation

You can guide the person to a deeper experience. Most of us want someone to care about us. We want someone to ask questions about who we are.

Through acknowledging their experience, affirming you understand and appreciate what they are saying, the other person will relax.

Listen and ask questions that draw the person out. If she starts talking about her garden, ask what her favorite vegetable is, how she cooks it, how do you know it’s ripe….

Don’t drill the person, be curious. Enjoy discovering who he or she is.

5. Beyond words

We assume small talk is just that—talk.

Talk is what happens as you relate on multiple levels.

In Peter F. Drucker’s book, The Essential Drucker, he offers this advice:

“The most important thing in communication is to see and hear what isn’t being said.”

How the body responds speaks louder and truer than your words. Your mind can choose to speak what you think will sound good. Voice tone, body language and movement speak what you are feeling; so do you unconsciously perceive what the other person is experiencing.

When your words are congruent with your emotions, your body will express a relaxed state. What makes this simple act challenging is you need to experience and begin to accept your emotions. That is something we were trained not to do. When you do it, you set yourself and possibly another free.

Helping your body express and thereby release tensions will set you up for emotional-body congruency. Not fighting your psychophysiology experience allows you to connect to a new awareness that could have you say something that shifts your interaction from small talk to a conversation.

6. Using words to transform small talk

Words are how humans connect.

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Beyond the usual suggestions, you can have your words speak to something more than the weather. Sure, you can start with a small talk comment. What makes any small talk conversation difficult is progressing past the superficial. Here are some ways to do that:

  • You can share a vulnerable experience. I wouldn’t suggest starting off sharing about the death of your friend. You may mention how the last speaker you both heard lost you. You had no reference to understand what she was saying. When you are vulnerable about a shared experience, you immediately begin to build a bond.
  • Let your passion come out. Sure, the person may not share the same feelings about your topic—that’s okay. She is less likely to remember what you said than the enthusiasm you expressed.
  • Asking questions will draw a person out. We all like talking about ourselves or what we are into. Give the person permission to be expressive. As they speak, reinforce them sharing their interests with you.
  • Try telling an engaging story. Maybe it’s a story you have practiced. It might not be as genuine as an improvisational conversation, but it could be entertaining and get you warmed up. A self-deprecating tale shows your vulnerability as it entertains.

Whatever method you are using, you want to track the person as you are speaking. Don’t ramble on. Don’t stay focused on what you are staying. Watch them. Are they engaged?

It is good to have a few conversation starters for when you can’t think of anything to say. You can comment on what they are wearing or doing in the moment. If you are eating, ask them how they like what they are eating. A deeper starter may be what excites them in their life. You could ask what is their favorite restaurant or vacation.

As you relax, you will find your humor more available—use it. In a fun way, tease the person. Be careful not to be cutting or sarcastic. You can always start with a comment about how you did something that is stupid and funny.

7. Getting into the flow

A flow state is when you are performing at a high level with very little effort and a lot of pleasure. You can do it speaking to a new acquaintance. You do it by following the ROC formula, by staying connected to your experience and to the person with whom you are speaking.

The secret to catalyzing it is to extend yourself 4% beyond your normal high level of performance. It means taking a conscious risk. It’s enough of a risk that you are excited and focused, but not so much that your survival instincts kick in and you shut down.

Going for flow is a powerful way to steadily increase a skill. Slowly you are stretching yourself. Slowly your body and mind learn to perform at a higher level. The fear response decreases and your ability to connect increases.

Reframing your fear into excitement, your lack of confidence into a bigger mission, and your hesitation into how you want to contribute can help you focus. That focus may be what it takes to risk while you are still connected to your experience.

Key skills to master small talk

1. Slow down

As in the ROC, the key is slowing down. When you find your mind racing, breathe. Let yourself feel the emotion. Take the long view. Maybe in the current interaction, you don’t perform at the level you want. That is okay. If you begin to slow down and feel more than before, you have succeeded. As you keep doing that, small talk will become more natural.

As you slow down and connect to your own experience, observe what the other person is doing. Try mirroring his posture. You will both be more likely to feel connected. We do this naturally when we are connected. Play with the way you can match a person, have fun with it.

2. Listening — the most powerful skill

Stop thinking about what to say next when the other person is speaking. Begin to trust you will have the “right thing to say” when you speak.

Listen with your whole body. Let yourself feel what the other person is feeling. Listen for what is not being said or felt. Listen in a way that you could repeat back, not word for word, but in a way that would make the person feel heard.

Listen to be curious. As the person talks, wait for the thing they say that has you wonder or want more.

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Listening emotionally is being empathic. That means allowing yourself to be emotionally impacted. That is a huge honor to give to another. Sure, it’s unlikely to happen immediately in a conversation. It is more likely to occur if you are intending to feel.

Know that even extroverts are inwardly shy. Although they can be the life of the party, they still hide parts of themselves. Being a good listener will have an extrovert come away from a conversation with you feeling different. As easy as an extrovert’s communication style may seem to be, it is still work to put themselves out there. When they are heard and seen in a deeper way without needing to entertain, they will appreciate it. So will you.

3. Serve a higher purpose

Talking to someone may be a challenge for you. As you walk over, ask yourself how you can serve your growth and the other person.

You don’t need to have an answer. Having that question will set you up to be more open. You don’t know what might come out of a small conversation.

Small Talk — a big journey

If you want a list of quick fixes for small talk, you can find them on the Internet.

If you want to master small talk your way, begin to apply the ROC formula. Use your interactions as ways to heal and teach yourself.

Be willing to fail. I still have short interactions that don’t work. I learned that it’s not always me. And if it is, that’s okay.

One of my earliest learning experiences was trying to pick up women. I was terrible at it. As soon as I spoke, I put my foot in my mouth. If I kept talking, I put the other foot in.

I learned that when there was a seed of connection and we had a few minutes, connecting was easy and fun. Flirting just happened. We were in the flow.

If you want to learn quicker, find situations where you can practice. If there is nothing at stake, it will be easier. If you don’t know the people and will not see them again after the event , you have more room to go for it.

Pick at least one principle or skill and use it this week. Let me know how it goes. I will respond!

Featured photo credit: Photo by Dogancan Ozturan on Unsplash via unsplash.com

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Owen Marcus

Author, Men’s Workshop Developer and Coach, Relationship Guide

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Last Updated on May 21, 2019

How to Communicate Effectively in Any Relationship

How to Communicate Effectively in Any Relationship

For all our social media bravado, we live in a society where communication is seen less as an art, and more as a perfunctory exercise. We spend so much time with people, yet we struggle with how to meaningfully communicate.

If you believe you have mastered effective communication, scan the list below and see whether you can see yourself in any of the examples:

Example 1

You are uncomfortable with a person’s actions or comments, and rather than telling the individual immediately, you sidestep the issue and attempt to move on as though the offending behavior or comment never happened.

You move on with the relationship and develop a pattern of not addressing challenging situations. Before long, the person with whom you are in relationship will say or do something that pushes you over the top and predictably, you explode or withdraw completely from the relationship.

In this example, hard-to-speak truths become never- expressed truths that turn into resentment and anger.

Example 2

You communicate from the head and without emotion. While what you communicate makes perfect sense to you, it comes across as cold because it lacks emotion.

People do not understand what motivates you to say what you say, and without sharing your feelings and emotions, others experience you as rude, cold or aggressive.

You will know this is a problem if people shy away from you, ignore your contributions in meetings or tell you your words hurt. You can also know you struggle in this area if you find yourself constantly apologizing for things you have said.

Example 3

You have an issue with one person, but you communicate your problem to an entirely different person.

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The person in whom you confide lacks the authority to resolve the matter troubling you, and while you have vented and expressed frustration, the underlying challenge is unresolved.

Example 4

You grew up in a family with destructive communication habits and those habits play out in your current relationships.

Because you have never stopped to ask why you communicate the way you do and whether your communication style still works, you may lack understanding of how your words impact others and how to implement positive change.

If you find yourself in any of the situations described above, this article is for you.

Communication can build or decimate worlds and it is important we get it right. Regardless of your professional aspirations or personal goals, you can improve your communication skills if you:

  • Understand your own communication style
  • Tailor your style depending on the needs of the audience
  • Communicate with precision and care
  • Be mindful of your delivery, timing and messenger

1. Understand Your Communication Style

To communicate effectively, you must understand the communication legacy passed down from our parents, grandparents or caregivers. Each of us grew up with spoken and unspoken rules about communication.

In some families, direct communication is practiced and honored. In other families, family members are encouraged to shy away from difficult conversations. Some families appreciate open and frank dialogue and others do not. Other families practice silence about substantive matters, that is, they seldom or rarely broach difficult conversations at all.

Before you can appreciate the nuance required in communication, it helps to know the familial patterns you grew up with.

2. Learn Others Communication Styles

Communicating effectively requires you to take a step back, assess the intended recipient of your communication and think through how the individual prefers to be communicated with. Once you know this, you can tailor your message in a way that increases the likelihood of being heard. This also prevents you from assuming the way you communicate with one group is appropriate or right for all groups or people.

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If you are unsure how to determine the styles of the groups or persons with whom you are interacting, you can always ask them:

“How do you prefer to receive information?”

This approach requires listening, both to what the individuals say as well as what is unspoken. Virgin Group CEO Richard Branson noted that the best communicators are also great listeners.

To communicate effectively from relationship to relationship and situation to situation, you must understand the communication needs of others.

3. Exercise Precision and Care

A recent engagement underscored for me the importance of exercising care when communicating.

On a recent trip to Ohio, I decided to meet up with an old friend to go for a walk. As we strolled through the soccer park, my friend gently announced that he had something to talk about, he was upset with me. His introduction to the problem allowed me to mentally shift gears and prepare for the conversation.

Shortly after introducing the shift in conversation, my friend asked me why I didn’t invite him to the launch party for my business. He lives in Ohio and I live in the D.C. area.

I explained that the event snuck up on me, and I only started planning the invite list three weeks before the event. Due to the last-minute nature of the gathering, I opted to invite people in the DMV area versus my friends from outside the area – I didn’t want to be disrespectful by asking them to travel on such short notice.

I also noted that I didn’t want to be disappointed if he and others declined to come to the event. So I played it safe in terms of inviting people who were local.

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In the moment, I felt the conversation went very well. I also checked in with my friend a few days after our walk, affirmed my appreciation for his willingness to communicate his upset and our ability to work through it.

The way this conversation unfolded exemplified effective communication. My friend approached me with grace and vulnerability. He approached me with a level of curiosity that didn’t put me on my heels — I was able to really listen to what he was saying, apologize for how my decision impacted him and vow that going forward, I would always ask rather than making decisions for him and others.

Our relationship is intact, and I now have information that will help me become a better friend to him and others.

4. Be Mindful of Delivery, Timing and Messenger

Communicating effectively also requires thinking through the delivery of the message one intends to communicate as well as the appropriate time for the discussion.

In an Entrepreneur.com column, VIP Contributor Deep Patel, noted that persons interested in communicating well need to master the art of timing. Patel noted,[1]

“Great comedians, like all great communicators, are able to feel out their audience to determine when to move on to a new topic or when to reiterate an idea.”

Communicating effectively also requires thoughtfulness about the messenger. A person prone to dramatic, angry outbursts should never be called upon to deliver constructive feedback, especially to people whom they do not know. The immediate aftermath of a mass shooting is not the ideal time to talk about the importance of the Second Amendment rights.

Like everyone else, I must work to ensure my communication is layered with precision and care.

It requires precision because words must be carefully tailored to the person with whom you are speaking.

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It requires intentionality because before one communicates, one should think about the audience and what the audience needs in order to hear your message the way you intended it to be communicated.

It requires active listening which is about hearing verbal and nonverbal messages.

Even though we may be right in what we say, how we say it could derail the impact of the message and the other parties’ ability to hear the message.

Communicating with care is also about saying things that the people in our life need to hear and doing so with love.

The Bottom Line

When I left the meeting with my dear friend, I wondered if I was replicating or modeling this level of openness and transparency in the rest of my relationships.

I was intrigued and appreciative. He’d clearly thought about what he wanted to say to me, picked the appropriate time to share his feedback and then delivered it with care. He hit the ball out of the park and I’m hopeful we all do the same.

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Featured photo credit: Kenan Buhic via unsplash.com

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