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Mastering the art of small talk for professionals in any situation

Posted on: May 16th, 2017

A common fear that many people have in any social situation or when meeting someone new is that they are the kind of person other people want to avoid, such as being so boring that people just want to get away from them. Many of us already know that engaging in small talk is intimidating and something most people tend to hate. In a professional situation, this is often worse.

Most people define small talk as engaging in polite conversation about trivial matters; however, if you already hate small talk, there is much more to this. You might wonder which topics are the best to talk about, or maybe you fear having nothing to say. Something worse might happen, such as saying something awkward or just plain dull. Can you really talk for hours about local traffic conditions or the state of the weather?

The problem here is that small talk is a major step in the process of building professional relationships that can give your career a boost, so it is something that cannot be ignored. The author of ‘The Fine Art of Small Talk’, Debra Fine, once wrote, “Small talk is the appetizer for any relationship”.  This means that despite being rather scary, it is something you must work on. You can be reassured that it isn’t hard to improve on to the point where you can be more comfortable with it.

Here are a few great tips from the experts on how you can improve your small-talk skills:

Taking your small talk to a networking event

Most people can feel nervous when entering a room filled with strangers, but it can be much worse for anyone not naturally sociable or talkative. You need to remember that you are not the only one in the room feeling like that, as most of the people there probably feel the same way!

It is really helpful to know that others are nervous as well. Jim Kokocki, the international president of Toastmasters, once stated, “Walk into any room and take a minute to look around. Grab a drink and go find someone who’s standing awkwardly themselves. Say something like, ‘Hello, my name is Jim. What brings you to this event?’”. The process can be easier to deal with if you look for other people who are as uncomfortable as you.

Setting tiny and achievable goals can give you something to focus your efforts on is something a few experts suggest. A goal can be as small as meeting a new person at the next coffee break. Once you do this, have a break and a drink of some water. Your confidence will get a boost by setting small goals that you actually can achieve. Most times you’ll find that once you begin a conversation, things become much easier and you’ll be alright.

Refining your small talk and becoming an expert

Along with many other things, there are a few things to remember when it comes to small talk.

Prepare yourself.

Don’t start thinking about new topics to discuss once that uncomfortable silence occurs. It is during that awkward silence when it is the worst time to think of something new. The best strategy is to prepare a few other subjects that you can easily talk about prior to going to any event, as well as conversation ice-breakers like, “Have you been here before?”

The use of open-ended questions should help you not only get a conversation started, but it will also keep a conversation going if you have good follow-up questions

Take control

Most experts agree that taking on the burden of other people’s comfort is the key to small talk. This requires you to take control. When you are asked a question, ensure you have a really good answer ready so that the other person is put more at ease and allows the conversation to continue to flow easier for the both of you.

Being an active listener is also important, so don’t just stand there nodding your head and occasionally saying single words like ‘yes’, or ‘really?’. This lets people know that you are listening to them and are interested in what they have to say, not just hearing them speak and tuning out.

As we’ve previously mentioned, open-ended questions are fantastic conversation starters; however, there are a few you need to avoid. Questions about their marital status or if they have kids can pose some problems, as the other person might be going through a divorce. If this happens, expect an awkward silence. The better bet is to stick with questions that are more benign, such as “What has been the best part of this event for you so far?”

What is off limits?

It may seem logical to avoid conversations about politics or religion, but it might not always be the case. If you approach these topics in the right way, both can be interesting. Just remember that you need to accept that there’s nothing wrong with having a different opinion or to be opposed to something. You can always ask for opinions, just avoid telling them that your view is right. Things can be fine if you simply accept that you differ.

Despite that, in a formal setting (ie a client job or job interview), you must walk a fine line. There are very few benefits to discussing controversial topics unless you are sure of the group you are dealing with when other options are available.

What happens if things go wrong?

There are options available to ease any tension brought up when someone discusses a topic that causes things to get heated or cause division in the group. Allow a person to finish what they are saying, then respond with something like “Let’s see how it plays out, but that is really interesting”, and then try to avoid any further stress by moving the conversation to a new topic.

When this happens, make sure you try to diffuse the situation without being confrontational. One way would be to say, “It’s been great to meet you, but I’m going to mingle some more while we still have the chance”. This allows you to get out of a conversation without causing offence. Other ways to exit a conversation without causing offense can be found on The Muse. With all that has been said, make sure you never lie to exit a conversation, as those lies will come back to haunt you. It simply is not worth it.

Keep your focus on others

Constantly talking about yourself is the easiest way to end a conversation, according to many experts. Debra Fine goes even further with this by suggesting that talking about yourself for more than four minutes should be avoided as you are overdoing it.

A better suggestion is to focus on the other people involved in the conversation. This will help to avoid an awkward situation where we’re merely focusing on ourselves and aims to make others feel good about themselves by simply by us showing interest in them. The result of this is a much more enjoyable and beneficial conversation for all participants.

Using questions to find out more about other people is another useful technique to maintain a conversation. If the other person mentions they just returned from a vacation overseas, ask them about it, such as where they went, what the food and weather was like, what they did, etc. This sets you up for answers that allow you to engage more, such as, “Oh, I’ve never been there” or “I’ve never tried that sort of food”. This will create an easy back and forth conversation that is an example of good small talk.

No one starts out as an expert

People who are considered masters of small talk and have written books on the subject all started out as beginners. As an example, Debra Fine was an engineer who originally thought small talk was irrelevant. Once she realized the power of making those human connections and networking, she devoted some time to learn and improve on her small-talk skills.

Everyone is nervous and unsure at the beginning, but learning, understanding and improving is all the same process. With a bit of guidance and practice, anyone can improve their skills at making small talk.

Like any other skill, the focus must be on practice, as the more you do something, the more you improve. Why not purposely seek out a networking event so you can practice your conversation skills so that you can master the art of small talk.

Set a goal of meeting a new stranger every day and see how you go. You can find a number of apps to help you with this, such as Way of Life, Coach.me or Balanced. A toastmaster club can give you a more formal method of training. A training program from them can take up to 18 months to finish, but it is quite comprehensive.

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