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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 August 12, 2020

When Should You Trust Your Gut and How?

When Should You Trust Your Gut and How?

Learning how to trust your gut, otherwise known as your intuition, can keep you safe. Your gut can guide you and help you build your confidence and resilience. My own gut instinct has saved me on more than one occasion. It has also guided me into making sound career choices and other exciting, big decisions. I’m also aware of the times when I’ve gone against my instincts and really regretted it later, wondering why I didn’t tune in to that valuable internal voice that we all have within us.

In this article, we’re going to explore why and how you should listen to your gut, as well as some concrete tips on how to make sure you’re making the most out of your gut instincts.

How to Listen to Your Gut

The key when making any big decision is to always take a minute to listen well to yourself and your inner compass. If you hear your actual voice saying yes while inside you’re silently screaming no, my advice is to ask for some time to think, or simply take a breath and pause before the yes or no escapes your mouth.

Use that moment to breathe, check in with yourself, and give the answer that feels congruent with who you are and what you want, not the one that always involves following the herd. Trusting your gut means having the courage to not simply go with the majority. It can be about holding your own. Here’s how to hone that skill for yourself and reap the rewards.

1. Tune Into Your Body

Your body gives you clues when you’re faced with a big decision. There are many visible and obvious symptoms that we feel in uncomfortable situations. Our body’s reaction is often something that we might try to hide, for example, blushing, being lost for words, or shaking. There are things we might do to try and hide that physical reaction, whether it’s wearing makeup, having a glass of wine or coffee to perk us up a bit, or learning to control our nerves.

However, paying attention to your body when you experience these feelings of anxiety can teach you so much and help you to make sound choices. Some people will experience an actual “gut” feeling of stomach ache or indigestion in an uncomfortable situation.

Ask yourself what’s really going on here, and explore what is happening behind your body’s response to the situation. What can your reaction or instinct teach you? Understanding that can be a clue and can help you either learn something about yourself, the situation, or other people. The answers are often within us.

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Sometimes we’ll get this “something’s not right here” feeling and cannot quite put our finger on it or explain it. That can still be incredibly useful and really guide us away from danger, even if we don’t know the reason.

In his book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell also argues this, making the point that sometimes our subconscious is better at processing the answer we need, and that we don’t necessarily need to take time to collect hours and hours of information to come to a reliable conclusion[1].

2. Ensure Your Head Is Clear Before Making a Decision

Energy, sleep, and good nutrition are so vital to nourishing our minds, as well as our bodies. There are times when your instinct could lead you astray, and one of these is when you are hungry, “hangry” (angry because you’re hungry!), tired, or anxious. If this is the case–and it may sound obvious–do consider sleeping or eating on it before making an important choice.

There is, in fact, a connection between our gut and our brain[2], which is where terms like “butterflies in the stomach” and “gut-wrenching” originate from. Stress and emotions can cause physical feelings, and ignoring them might do more harm than good.

3. Don’t Be Afraid to Say What You Think and Feel

Listening to your gut and really paying attention to it might involve standing up and being counted, calling something out, or taking a stand. As someone who works for myself, I’ve become used to following the less-travelled road, and that’s given me the chance to strike out on my own in other ways, too.

As they tell you in the planes, “put your own oxygen mask on first,” and part of that self-reliance is knowing what you really want and like and what is safe and good for you, including what resonates with your personal and business values. Making good decisions with this in mind means making choices that do not go against your own beliefs, even when it may mean taking a stand. This is part of trusting yourself and trusting your instincts.

This does not always mean taking the “safe” option, although keeping ourselves safe is an important part of the process. This is how we learn and grow, by following our own inner compass. When you do take risks, go outside of your comfort zone, or choose the less popular option, spending some time researching the facts can stand us in good stead, too.

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4. Do Your Research If Something Feels Off

As well as listening to our instincts, we can also back up the evidence for our chosen course of action before taking the leap. I had a gut feeling about the need for a learning and development network when I noticed my clients getting stuck with the same problems. I set up and now run such a network, but instead of simply going for it, without evidence, I followed up on my instinct with research.

Having confidence in your gut instinct through these kinds of tests can help to minimize your risks, as well as spur you on. It will encourage you to trust your gut again in the future and trust that you are an expert with foresight and experience. You are!

5. Challenge Your Assumptions

When you look at the assumptions your making, this could be the clue to mistakes you are making.

In order to check that our instincts are wise, we need to ask ourselves what blanks we might be filling in, either consciously or unconsciously. This is true not just when it comes to our own decision-making. It’s also true when we are listening to someone explain a problem or situation, and we’re about to jump in and give some advice. If we can learn to be aware of our own assumptions, we can become better listeners and better decision makers, too.

A useful tool to become more aware of your assumptions before making a final decision is simply to ask yourself, “What assumptions am I making about this situation or person?”

6. Educate Yourself on Unconscious Bias

Unconscious bias is something we all have, and it can trip us up big time!

There is a vital caveat to bear in mind when wondering about whether you can trust your gut and the feelings your body gives you, and that’s having an awareness of your unconscious bias. Understanding your own bias–which is hard to do because it literally does happen in our subconscious–can help you to make stronger, better, decisions instead of re-confirming your view of the world over and over again.

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Bias exists, and it’s part of the human condition. All of us have it, and it colors our decisions and can impact on our performance without us realizing.

Unconscious bias happens at a subconscious level in our brains. Our subconscious brain processes information so much faster than our conscious brain. Quick decisions we make in our subconscious are based on both our societal conditioning and how our families raised us.

Our brains process hundreds of thousands of pieces of information daily. We unconsciously categorize and format that information into patterns that feel familiar to us. Aspects such as gender, disability, class, sexuality, body shape and size, ethnicity, and what someone does for a job can all quickly influence decisions we make about people and the relationships we choose to form. Our unconscious bias can be very subtle and go unnoticed..

We naturally tend to gravitate towards people similar to ourselves, favoring people who we see as belonging to the same “group” as us. Being able to make a quick decision about whether someone is part of your group and distinguish friend from foe was what helped early humans to survive. Conversely, we don’t automatically favor people who we don’t immediately relate to or easily connect with.

The downside of that human instinct to seek out similar people is the potential for prejudice, which seems to be hard-wired into human cognition, no matter how open-minded we believe ourselves to be. And these stereotypes we create can be wrong. If we only spend our time with and employ people similar to ourselves, it can create prejudices, as well as stifle fresh thinking and innovation.

We may feel more natural or comfortable working with other people who share our own background and/or opinions than collaborating with people who don’t look, talk, or think like us. However, diversity is not just morally right; having a mix of different people and perspectives that can be genuinely heard is also a valuable way to counter groupthink. Diversity stretches us to think more critically and creatively.

7. Trust Yourself

It is possible to learn how to truly trust yourself[3]. Like any talent or skill, practicing trusting your gut is the best way to get really good at it. When people talk about having great intuition or being good decision-makers, it’s because they’ve worked at honing those skills, made mistakes, learned from them, and tried again.

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Looking back at decisions you’ve made, what you did, what the outcome was, and what you’ve learned can help you become a stronger decision maker and develop solid self-trust and resilience. Making a mistake does not mean you are not great at decision-making; it’s a chance to grow and learn, and the only mistake is to ignore the lesson in that experience.

If you are in the habit of asking others for their input, then the trick here is to choose your inner circle wisely. Having a sounding board of people who have your best interests at heart is a valuable asset, and, combined with your own excellent instincts, can make you a champion decision maker.

The Bottom Line

The above tips are all actionable and easy to start immediately. It’s simply about switching your thinking around, slowing down, and taking great care of this amazing machine that is your body and mind!

Learning how to trust your gut is one of the most fundamental ways to make decisions that will help you lead the life you want and need. Tune into what your body is telling you and start making good decisions today.

More Tips on How to Trust Your Gut

Featured photo credit: Acy Varlan via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Science of People: Learn to Trust Your Gut Instincts: The Science Behind Thin-slicing
[2] Harvard Health Publishing: The gut-brain connection
[3] Psych Central: 3 Ways to Develop Self-Trust

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