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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 January 15, 2021

7 Ways To Have More Confident Body Language

7 Ways To Have More Confident Body Language

The popular idiomatic saying that “actions speak louder than words” has been around for centuries, but even to this day, most people struggle with at least one area of nonverbal communication. Consequently, many of us aspire to have more confident body language but don’t have the knowledge and tools necessary to change what are largely unconscious behaviors.

Given that others’ perceptions of our competence and confidence are predominantly influenced by what we do with our faces and bodies, it’s important to develop greater self-awareness and consciously practice better posture, stance, eye contact, facial expressions, hand movements, and other aspects of body language.

Posture

First things first: how is your posture? Let’s start with a quick self-assessment of your body.

  • Are your shoulders slumped over or rolled back in an upright posture?
  • When you stand up, do you evenly distribute your weight or lean excessively to one side?
  • Does your natural stance place your feet relatively shoulder-width apart or are your feet and legs close together in a closed-off position?
  • When you sit, does your lower back protrude out in a slumped position or maintain a straight, spine-friendly posture in your seat?

All of these are important considerations to make when evaluating and improving your posture and stance, which will lead to more confident body language over time. If you routinely struggle with maintaining good posture, consider buying a posture trainer/corrector, consulting a chiropractor or physical therapist, stretching daily, and strengthening both your core and back muscles.

Facial Expressions

Are you prone to any of the following in personal or professional settings?

  • Bruxism (tight, clenched jaw or grinding teeth)
  • Frowning and/or furrowing brows
  • Avoiding direct eye contact and/or staring at the ground

If you answered “yes” to any of these, then let’s start by examining various ways in which you can project confident body language through your facial expressions.

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1. Understand How Others Perceive Your Facial Expressions

A December 2020 study by UC Berkeley and Google researchers utilized a deep neural network to analyze facial expressions in six million YouTube clips representing people from over 140 countries. The study found that, despite socio-cultural differences, people around the world tended to use about 70% of the same facial expressions in response to different emotional stimuli and situations.[1]

The study’s researchers also published a fascinating interactive map to demonstrate how their machine learning technology assessed various facial expressions and determined subtle differences in emotional responses.

This study highlights the social importance of facial expressions because whether or not we’re consciously aware of them—by gazing into a mirror or your screen on a video conferencing platform—how we present our faces to others can have tremendous impacts on their perceptions of us, our confidence, and our emotional states. This awareness is the essential first step towards

2. Relax Your Face

New research on bruxism and facial tension found the stresses and anxieties of Covid-19 lockdowns led to considerable increases in orofacial pain, jaw-clenching, and teeth grinding, particularly among women.[2]

The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research estimates that more than 10 million Americans alone have temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ syndrome), and facial tension can lead to other complications such as insomnia, wrinkles, dry skin, and dark, puffy bags under your eyes.[3])

To avoid these unpleasant outcomes, start practicing progressive muscle relaxation techniques and taking breaks more frequently throughout the day to moderate facial tension.[4] You should also try out some biofeedback techniques to enhance your awareness of involuntary bodily processes like facial tension and achieve more confident body language as a result.[5]

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3. Improve Your Eye Contact

Did you know there’s an entire subfield of kinesic communication research dedicated to eye movements and behaviors called oculesics?[6] It refers to various communication behaviors including direct eye contact, averting one’s gaze, pupil dilation/constriction, and even frequency of blinking. All of these qualities can shape how other people perceive you, which means that eye contact is yet another area of nonverbal body language that we should be more mindful of in social interactions.

The ideal type (direct/indirect) and duration of eye contact depends on a variety of factors, such as cultural setting, differences in power/authority/age between the parties involved, and communication context. Research has shown that differences in the effects of eye contact are particularly prominent when comparing East Asian and Western European/North American cultures.[7]

To improve your eye contact with others, strive to maintain consistent contact for at least 3 to 4 seconds at a time, consciously consider where you’re looking while listening to someone else, and practice eye contact as much as possible (as strange as this may seem in the beginning, it’s the best way to improve).

3. Smile More

There are many benefits to smiling and laughing, and when it comes to working on more confident body language, this is an area that should be fun, low-stakes, and relatively stress-free.

Smiling is associated with the “happiness chemical” dopamine and the mood-stabilizing hormone, serotonin. Many empirical studies have shown that smiling generally leads to positive outcomes for the person smiling, and further research has shown that smiling can influence listeners’ perceptions of our confidence and trustworthiness as well.

4. Hand Gestures

Similar to facial expressions and posture, what you do with your hands while speaking or listening in a conversation can significantly influence others’ perceptions of you in positive or negative ways.

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It’s undoubtedly challenging to consciously account for all of your nonverbal signals while simultaneously trying to stay engaged with the verbal part of the discussion, but putting in the effort to develop more bodily awareness now will make it much easier to unconsciously project more confident body language later on.

5. Enhance Your Handshake

In the article, “An Anthropology of the Handshake,” University of Copenhagen social anthropology professor Bjarke Oxlund assessed the future of handshaking in wake of the Covid-19 pandemic:[8]

“Handshakes not only vary in function and meaning but do so according to social context, situation and scale. . . a public discussion should ensue on the advantages and disadvantages of holding on to the tradition of shaking hands as the conventional gesture of greeting and leave-taking in a variety of circumstances.”

It’s too early to determine some of the ways in which Covid-19 has permanently changed our social norms and professional etiquette standards, but it’s reasonable to assume that handshaking may retain its importance in American society even after this pandemic. To practice more confident body language in the meantime, the video on the science of the perfect handshake below explains what you need to know.

6. Complement Your Verbals With Hand Gestures

As you know by now, confident communication involves so much more than simply smiling more or sounding like you know what you’re talking about. What you do with your hands can be particularly influential in how others perceive you, whether you’re fidgeting with an object, clenching your fists, hiding your hands in your pockets, or calmly gesturing to emphasize important points you’re discussing.

Social psychology researchers have found that “iconic gestures”—hand movements that appear to be meaningfully related to the speaker’s verbal content—can have profound impacts on listeners’ information retention. In other words, people are more likely to engage with you and remember more of what you said when you speak with complementary hand gestures instead of just your voice.[9]

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Further research on hand gestures has shown that even your choice of the left or right hand for gesturing can influence your ability to clearly convey information to listeners, which supports the notion that more confident body language is readily achievable through greater self-awareness and deliberate nonverbal actions.[10]

Final Takeaways

Developing better posture, enhancing your facial expressiveness, and practicing hand gestures can vastly improve your communication with other people. At first, it will be challenging to consciously practice nonverbal behaviors that many of us are accustomed to performing daily without thinking about them.

If you ever feel discouraged, however, remember that there’s no downside to consistently putting in just a little more time and effort to increase your bodily awareness. With the tips and strategies above, you’ll be well on your way to embracing more confident body language and amplifying others’ perceptions of you in no time.

More Tips on How to Develop a Confident Body Language

Featured photo credit: Maria Lupan via unsplash.com

Reference

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