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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

More by this author

Owen Marcus

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

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Last Updated on October 5, 2020

How to Quit Your Boring Life and Start Living an Interesting One

How to Quit Your Boring Life and Start Living an Interesting One

We are given life with many opportunities to make it everything we want it to be and more. If you find that you’ve slipped into living a boring life, it’s time to take a hard look at what you’ve been doing and what you can start doing now to make it more interesting.

Maybe you’ve been doing the same thing and living the same life for too long, or maybe your daily routine is limiting your growth and happiness. Whatever your reason is, the following list can definitely make any day or life more interesting. Some of them are silly, while some are more meaningful, so hopefully just reading the list makes your life less boring and sparks your creativity.

Let’s dive in the list to quit your boring life and start living an interesting (and meaningful) one!

1. Channel Your 7-Year-Old Self

Imagine being a young child. Life was never boring, was it? That’s because children harness every ounce of creativity they have in order to try new things.

What would your 7-year-old self want to do in this moment? Maybe they’d pick up a paintbrush and try to paint the landscape around them. May they would go outside and build something with random materials around the yard. Maybe they would raid the fridge and put together a dish they’ve never seen before.

Just because you’re a grown-up doesn’t mean any of this stuff will be less enjoyable than you remember it. Give yourself permission to play and use your creativity to its fullest.

2. Go Play With Kids

Speaking of little kids, if you have your own (or a niece or nephew), go play with them!

Kids are absolutely hilarious, so it’s simply impossible to be bored when you’re around them. They also keep things so simple, and we can really stand to be reminded of this and stop allowing ourselves to get bogged down in boring details.

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3. Play Cell Phone Roulette

You’ll need at least one buddy for this, but this is a great way to avoid a boring life. Scroll through the contacts in your phone, stop on a random one, and (if it feels right) call the person.

You could spark an incredible catch-up session or, at the very least, remind someone that you’re thinking of them. Neither are boring.

4. Fill out a Pack of Thank-You Cards

This is a great part of a gratitude practice. We often forget to thank the people who do things for us, especially if we have come to expect those things. For example, have you ever thought about thanking your mom for that weekly phone call? Or thanking your sister for always sending you a homemade gift on your birthday?

Take time to think of at least 5 people you would like to say thank you to and write out a card. You could even write them out for random people in your neighborhood, like the local librarian, a teacher at your child’s school, or the accountant at your bank.

Anyone and everyone appreciates being thanked for their efforts.

5. Sign up for a Class

Nowadays, there are classes for everything. To make it as interesting as possible, try finding one that you wouldn’t normally consider doing, like salsa lessons, improv, or boxing.

Otherwise, try to find a course on something you’ve always wanted to learn, like pottery, photography, or a foreign language course.

What’s good about joining an interest class is that you will also meet new people, which will add even more interest to your life!

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6. Talk to Your Grandparents About Their Lives

We often underestimate how interesting the elderly are. You can rest assured that any elderly person you talk to will not have had a boring life! Take some time to talk to them and hear their interesting stories. You may even find that this motivates you to go out and find your own interesting experiences.

7. Get up on Stage at an Open Mic Night

Whether you’re funny or not, get up on stage. If you’re not into comedy, find an open mic that focuses on reading poetry or short stories and bring your own. These groups tend to be incredibly supportive for anyone who is willing to be brave enough to get up and try.

8. Do Something for Someone Else

Showing kindness automatically makes you feel good, but doing these small acts will also help to ensure that you don’t have a boring life. Try doing one or two things each week that are outside your normal routine.

For example, you could make a batch of cookies for the mailperson or help your elderly neighbor organize one of their rooms. There are a million ways to show kindness to those around you. Tap into your creativity and find your own or use some of the ideas from the image below[1].

Do random acts of kindness to avoid living a boring life.

    9. Start a DIY Project in Your Home

    If you have your own place, there is always a project that needs to get done. Many people simply pay for someone else to do it in order to avoid the hassle, but taking on a DIY project can make a boring life much more interesting.

    It doesn’t have to be super complicated. Maybe you repaint an old vase or build a spice shelf out of used pallets.

    If you need ideas, you can also check out these 30 Awesome DIY Projects that You’ve Never Heard of.

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    10. Plan a Weekend Trip or an All-Out Vacation

    This will give you something to look forward to. One study actually found that most travelers are happiest before a vacation[2]. Therefore, simply planning a trip will boost your mood, even if you can’t actually take the vacation right now.

    Even if you don’t have the time or money to go on a vacation, plan for a staycation, which is also fun and relaxing!

    11. Go People Watching

    Find a bench in a crowded area (centers of transportation like airports, bus stops, and train stations are great for this!) and just observe[3].

    People are infinitely interesting. Try to imagine what their lives are like, what they’re thinking, or where they’re going. You’ll never know if you’re right, but it will give you something to focus on and also help you practice empathy.

    12. Eat Something You’ve Never Eaten Before

    You can try that new Moroccan restaurant down the street and pick the most interesting dish on the menu. Or, you can raid your own fridge and throw together a dish you’ve never made before.

    If you’re up for a trip to the grocery store, try picking up a new fruit or veggie from the produce section. You may find a new food that you love!

    13. Dance

    You can get your friends together for a night on the town or just pull up a video on YouTube and bust a move from your own living room.

    If you’re feeling extra brave, you can even dance in public or join a flash mob.

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    14. Pick up a Book and Start Reading

    Reading a good book can keep you occupied for hours. It will also transport you to a life that isn’t your own, and one that likely will be the opposite of a boring life. You’ll be amazed by what you can learn from those pages.

    Pick on of these inspirational books to start reading: 10 Best Inspirational Books That Can Change Your Life

    15. Spend Some Time With People You Care About

    Facebook stalking doesn’t count as real social interaction. Call up a friend you haven’t seen in a while, or bring a coffee over to your parent’s place and catch up. They’ll appreciate the gesture, and you’ll avoid boredom.

    16. Check out a Museum You’ve Never Been to

    Some people are bored by museums, so if that’s you, skip to the next one. However, if you love art, history, or culture, this one is for you!

    17. Write a List of Things You Desire and Truly Want

    This is a great way to help you figure out the real reason why you’re feeling bored about your life. Maybe you haven’t really done things that you truly enjoy? Maybe what you’ve wanted to do all the time has been left behind?

    Think about the list of things you really want to do, and ask yourself why you aren’t doing these things (yet). Then, start taking your first step to make it happen.

    Now, go make your life interesting and live your dream life!

    More on How to Quit a Boring Life

    Featured photo credit: Alex Alvarez via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1] FECAVA: Random Acts of Kindness
    [2] Applied Research in Quality of Life: Vacationers Happier, but Most not Happier After a Holiday
    [3] Psychology Today: The Expert’s Guide to People Watching

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