When you meet new people, do you ever get anxious because you don’t know what to say?
Maybe you’re scared to sound stupid, and you think you’ll make a fool of yourself. Or you feel embarrassed when there’s a long, awkward silence in the conversation?
Don’t worry – lots of people are uncomfortable doing small talk. It makes us nervous and it’s easy to worry about what the other person is thinking.
But I have good news: small talk is a skill. And just like any other skill, it gets easier with practice.
To get you started, here are some tips for you to have better conversations when you meet someone new.
Tip 1: Treat Small Talk Like A Game
Small talk is all about building relationships with people. And building relationships takes time.
So don’t just jump in the conversation with a difficult question like: “What did classes did you take in high school?”
Instead, you want to build trust with people first. Start with a few pleasantries so people feel at ease. For example:
‘Hi. How are you?’
‘What brought you here?’
‘Hi. I don’t think we’ve met.’
These conversation starters make people feel comfortable and set the tone for the rest of your conversation. It’s only once you’ve built some rapport, then you can gradually ease into talking about the ‘deeper stuff’.
If the thought of making casual small talk scares you, start practicing in low-stakes environments. Even a simple hello to the cashier or a question like ‘What’s the best dish you do?’ at your local restaurant will help you build confidence over time.
And it’s one of the best ways to prepare for high-stakes events like conferences or important meetings at work.
Tip 2: Ask Unconventional And Interesting Questions
Once you feel comfortable with the default, it’s time to level up your game.
Most people will ask questions like: ‘Where do you come from?’ or ‘What do you do for a living?’ a few minutes into the conversation. This a great fall-back option if you don’t know much about the other person yet, or you’re unsure of how they’ll react.
But the more interesting conversations often come from when you start in an unconventional way. For example, when you introduce yourself, say something like:
‘I’m [name], I do X, and I love eating Italian food. My favourite dish is spicy mushroom pizza. How about you? What do you like to eat?’
This works really well, because it gives you an interesting topic to talk about. It also makes you look more memorable and approachable than if you started in the default way.
Over time, you can also mix things up. Talk about your favourite music, sports or other pastimes, and experiment until you find a few conversation openers that work for you.
Tip 3: Take An Active Role In The Conversation
Now, you’ve been talking for a while … and you’ve come to the point where there’s an awkward silence in your conversation.
You feel uncomfortable – but remember, it’s awkward because of you.
One of the best ways to avoid these silences is by taking the lead in the conversation. Ask a few questions and then make a thoughtful comment. Something like:
‘That’s really interesting. I wouldn’t have thought it was natural to go from A to B. But the way you said it, it makes a lot of sense’
A statement like this is really nice, because it shows that you are listening, and that you reflect on what they’ve said. It also encourages the other person to open up and share more about themselves, while moving your conversation along naturally.
Even so, you might have times when you get stuck or don’t know what to say next. Then it’s perfectly fine to change topics to avoid an awkward silence.
For example, if you’re at a networking event and a cool guy asks you: ‘How long have you been working at X company?’
You can respond like this:
‘About three years. … Hey, let me ask you a question. Did you catch what the speaker said earlier about X? I’m not quite sure I got what they meant.’
‘About three years. … By the way, a friend of mine said that you’ve been working with Y to create a new app. Can you tell me a bit more about this project of yours?’
As you can see, it doesn’t really matter what you talk about, so long as you can make a smooth transition from one topic to the next.
Tip 4: Have An Interesting Story To Tell
Whether it’s a great story from the local news or a personal anecdote, socially skilled people always seem to have an interesting idea to share.
You might wonder how they do it – especially if you tend to run out of ideas easily.
The secret: create a story toolbox. Think of a few memorable experiences you had recently, and create a story around each. Practice these stories until they come naturally to you.
It’s also always great to skim the news on the day of a networking event, so you’re in the loop about current trends and can follow along when people talk about recent developments.
Tip 5: Connect With People Through Body Language
Often, it’s much more important how you say something, rather than what you say (as long as what you say sounds reasonable).
This is because the vast majority of our communication goes through non-verbal channels, like body language, posture, and intonation.
You can use this to your advantage by trying to connect with people on a subconscious level. Pay attention to the signals you send: do you seem interested in the conversation, or are you defensive and trying to make a quick getaway?
You can smile at people to make them feel welcome, or up your energy levels to keep them engaged. Another useful tip is to practice holding eye contact for a bit longer than you are used to, and then glancing away for a few seconds. This helps create trust and makes you stand out in a positive way, because most people either avoid eye contact altogether or stare others in the eye.
So, try to find a good middle ground. Experiment with your body language to see what comes naturally to you and what complements your personality.
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Author: Carina Troche
Carina Troche is the founder of the personal development blog: The Wellbeing Wishlist. She writes about various topics, like how to start a good career or how to balance personal growth with emotional wellbeing.