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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 May 28, 2020

10 Success Principles for Living Your Dream Life

10 Success Principles for Living Your Dream Life

Are you stressed out and overwhelmed, wishing you had more time to do the things that really matter? Are you ready to do something better, something special in your life or your career?

You were born with a gift that no one else in the world can express like you. When you dance to your own music, you naturally develop your innate abilities and excel in work and life. You are a total rock star. But when you live someone else’s idea of who you should be, it throws off your groove.

Many people—maybe you—stopped following their dreams way too early in life because their talents were ignored, minimized, or shamed. They didn’t have the chops to win an American Idol competition or nab an Olympic gold medal, so they stopped expressing their inborn gifts altogether.

You don’t need to be an award winner to rock your life. Living your dream life is about discovering your superpowers and feeling vibrant and joyful when you use them. It’s about owning what makes you unique and finding like-minded people to support you.

Here are 10 success principles to help you live a rich and rewarding life on your terms that have worked with thousands of people in my workshops and will work for you, too.

1. Get a Hobby to Move Closer to Your Dreams

If you never became a professional dancer or a world-renowned author, it does NOT mean you should stop dancing or writing! These activities make you come alive, even if you “only” do them as favorite pastimes.

Engaging in a hobby is one of the most important success principles you can follow to move closer to your dreams.

When you try something creative for the first time or in a long while, you begin to see opportunities at work and in life that you were unaware of before. You also feel happier and more energized, according to a recent study from New Zealand.[1]

Some of my most burned-out executive clients reinvigorated their careers by discovering a creative outlet that refueled them after the workday ended. Research at San Francisco State University shows that having a hobby lowers stress and helps you succeed at work.[2]

So, give yourself permission to try new things and revisit old passions you gave up long ago. Setting aside just one hour a week for personal exploration can significantly change your life.

Who knows? Your creative outlet could transform into a thriving business or lead to a new profession down the road.

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2. Focus on Your Strengths, Not Your Weaknesses

Did you know that you are more likely to succeed when you develop your natural strengths rather than work on your weaknesses? The problem is that you probably don’t know where your true talents lie.

Here are a few options to help you discover your unique strengths. You can:

  • Take the VIA Character Strengths Survey[3]
  • Try Gallup’s CliftonStrengths Assessment[4]
  • Answer a few Superpower Questions

Once you understand what makes you tick, you can use these skills at work and your personal life to get more done in less time. If you boost your unique abilities through practice and study, you can accelerate your career and become a leader in a field that matters to you. It’s worth investing in yourself this way.

3. Jumping off a Cliff is NOT Required

Here’s the deal: most people are too afraid to change. When participants first come to my workshops, they tell me they have mouths to feed, bills to pay, and fear that if they follow their dreams, someone will get hurt.

The old saying “leap and the net shall appear” does not comfort them. Because they are hesitant to plunge into the unknown, they believe their only option is to stay put where they are in life. Can you relate?

You do not have to sacrifice the life you have now to start a new one. I was a psychology professor by day and singer by night for years before I transitioned into a full-time music career.

Just take a little time out each week to do what enlivens you through a hobby, volunteer work, etc. Get a feel for it.

Is it what you really want? If so, increase the time you spend doing it and make the transition when the time feels right.

4. Give Your Inner Critic Some Love

The main culprit that keeps you from stepping outside your comfort zone and getting the life of your dreams is KCRP or K-CRAP – the radio station that plays 24/7 in your head. The moment you try to do something interesting with your life it slaps you down with such chart-topping killer hooks as “Who do you think you are?” and “You’ll never be good enough!”.

Have you ever noticed that KCRP’s mean-spirited DJ sounds like your parents, teachers, bosses, and other authority figures who shut you down creatively? These folks don’t need to stifle you any longer (although they often still do) because your inner critic does it for them. That keeps you stuck in a rut.

To break free, try thinking of this DJ as a gruff old grandfather who gives you crap to keep you safe. Remember, this grumpy grandpa is woefully out of touch with the times. So, his stern opinions don’t really matter much, do they? Give him a pat on the back for his good intentions, and put your focus back on what makes you come alive.

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This success principle will give you the courage to venture into the unknown where you can dance to the beat of your own drummer.

5. Embrace Your Inner Weirdo

Many of us don’t go after our dreams because we’re afraid folks will find out how odd or strange we are. But our little eccentricities often turn out to be our greatest strengths. Yes, it’s good to be quirky.

Odds are, you lost track of your true passions and talents before you were even old enough to know you were getting off-track. You became slowly “adulterated” by learning to:

  • Take on family roles that don’t match who you really are.
  • Spit back what teachers taught you in school rather than risk getting bad grades for being original.
  • Hide parts of yourself that don’t seem acceptable to certain social groups.

The price for fitting in is that you may wind up leading a life that doesn’t fit you all that well. Your true calling becomes clear when you embrace what makes you different from others and allow yourself to stand out from the crowd, even if it feels awkward.

Often, the very qualities you view as your flaws are your greatest gifts.

6. See the Bigger Picture to Find Your True Calling

I cannot stress the importance of this success principle enough. Your true calling is right in front of you. But you may miss it because you’re looking for it in the wrong place.

To “see” it clearly, try widening your point of view.

Case in point: Maria felt she needed to retire early from being a police detective, so she could travel abroad. I encouraged Maria to think of ways that she could continue to serve as a law enforcer (a career she loved) and travel overseas at the same time.

A few months later, Maria landed a job with the United Nations in Bosnia training the local police force to understand and embrace human rights procedures.

Like Maria, you are an everyday rock star capable of accomplishing greater things than you can imagine. Is what you’re looking for right in front of you, too? Do you have an inkling of what it may be?

Look beyond your day-to-day activities, your current job, and even the town you live in. View your life from an eagle’s perspective and be open to new possibilities.

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7. Try a Little Wish-List Magic

Pretend I’m your fairy godmother and I give you permission right now to be your most magnificent self. What kind of life would be music to your ears? It doesn’t matter whether it seems unattainable or even downright crazy. Write it down on a wish list.

Get quiet. Be honest. Think big.

What would you like your career, your relationships, your health, your finances, and your spiritual life to be like? Jot down enough details so that your wishes seem tangible to you. Then, look at this list every morning before you start your day and every night before you go to sleep.

Sounds silly? It’s not. It works! Permitting yourself to daydream about a rich and fulfilling life is the first step to manifesting it.

8. Take Breaks to Get Clues About Your Ideal Future

Did you know that working straight through to a deadline leads to diminishing returns? Research shows that taking a break for 15 minutes every 75 to 90 minutes can help you recharge, refresh your focus, and get more done in less time.[5]

Wait, it gets better! A Stanford study shows that walking increases your creative output increases by 60 percent. Doing repetitive activities such as walking, running, riding your bike, swimming, and sweeping allow solutions to problems to pop into your mind out of nowhere.[6]

What does this success principle have to do with creating your dream life?

These mini-breaks allow you to get vital clues for what to do next to attain your ideal future. Plus, you won’t waste precious time and energy getting lost in other people’s agendas.

9. Take Action on Your Inspired Ideas

Once an inspired thought pops into your mind, take action.

This is one of the most powerful success principles for turning your dreams into reality; the sooner the better. Whatever it is—from calling an old friend to taking a new route home—be sure to do it!

Pay attention to your oddball hunches. You need to go after what you want, not just dream about it. As comedian Jim Carrey warns,

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“You can’t just visualize and go eat a sandwich.”

10. Count Your Rockstar Moments

Still not sure you have what it takes to get your dream life? This final success principle is guaranteed to help.

Make a list of everything you’ve ever accomplished. As you read back through it, put a star next to each item, and let it sink in.

You’ll be pleasantly surprised by how good you’ll feel about yourself afterward. You’ll also see how effective you’ve been in the past at getting what you want. You’ve succeeded before, you can succeed again.

You already rock. You just need to own it. Trust me, you’ve got this!

Final Thoughts

Eleanor Roosevelt said,

“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”

Following these success principles will help you find the time and energy to do the things that really matter and live with clear intention.

By spending just one hour a week doing something you love, focusing on your strengths and achievements, embracing what makes you different, and acting on inspired ideas, you can create a life that is a perfect fit for you, step-by-step.

If you don’t have a clue about what your dream life could look like yet, don’t worry. Your heart knows. It has been “talking” to you for a long time. It’s just being muffled by KCRP, buried under a lot of “shoulds” and fear.

This article can also help you figure out the life you truly want to live: How to Get Motivated and Be Happy Every Day When You Wake Up.

Stand still, get quiet, and listen. It’s constantly telling you what you need to do to realize your own rockstar potential. It may be just a whisper now, but the more you pay attention to it, the louder it will get, and the easier it will be to follow.

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Featured photo credit: Rahul Dey via unsplash.com

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