Many professionals dread holiday parties on the horizon. It’s not that they don’t enjoy seeing old friends and family members; it’s the uncomfortable pressure of small talk with people they don’t know well. These tips will help you feel more at ease in those situations.
People have a fear of being sucked into conversations that are over their heads and then left to drown. Toss out a question that requires an easy response, not an essay.
When you ask for information such as “What’s the latest news on the XYZ situation?” either the person can tell you or they can’t. If they can tell you, it’s no big ego stroke for them simply to share common information. If they can’t, they’ll feel uninformed or ignorant. On the other hand, when you ask for an opinion, people feel complimented. And although you may disagree with them, opinions can’t be “wrong.”
“What do you think we need to do to solve the poverty problem in this country?” sounds too challenging to tackle. Those who post on Facebook or in LinkedIn groups know that the more specific the question, the more responses it generates.
I call this the you-talk-while-I-look-around-and-see-what-else-is-happening ploy. These questions force the other person to carry the conversational ball while knowing you’ve tuned out. Such dishonest questions make the other person feel downright foolish.
Give people the “so what” up front. Tell them why they should care about a subject you introduce. Everybody needs an enticement to listen—even for fun.
The difference between stimulating and dull comes down to pacing. Notice when responses dwindle to stock fillers like these: “Incredible!” “Awesome.” “Amazing.” “Cool!” “Weird.” “Really.” Don’t keep racing the engine when the conversation sputters. Change the subject.
Even if you agree with what someone else says, don’t simply nod or comment with a phrase like “So true.” Try also to add a fresh idea or fact, an illustrative anecdote or example, or ask a question to elicit elaboration from someone else.
Everybody is ignorant, only on different subjects, according to Will Rogers. Your lack of knowledge will not necessarily be a drawback to the conversation. On the contrary, the more knowledgeable person will likely enjoy the solo attention that her expertise brings. Just don’t try to fake it by throwing in tidbits that will sound awkward to others. Instead, ask intelligent questions: “I’m afraid I know very little about that industry. Why are things priced that way?”
If someone is talking about the latest developments in nuclear fission, don’t expect others to give you a college course in 10 minutes. Just listen and learn what you can or excuse yourself from the conversation. Don’t make an entire group wait mid-stream while someone educates you.
I don’t necessarily mean a song-and-dance routine. But do aim to help people enjoy themselves. Entertainment may include educating them on a topic of interest, letting them educate you on their favorite subject, exchanging views on an issue, meeting new people with unusual experiences and opinions. But keep in mind that entertainment rarely includes a lecture or debate!
You can make an amusing story of just about anything—what happened on the way to the client’s meeting, your accident on vacation, your brother-in-law’s goofy car shopping habits.
Continue to test to see how interested the other person is in the conversation. After they tell a story, toss out, “A similar thing happened to my aunt!” Pause. See if they invite you to elaborate. If not, either change the subject or give your bored listener a chance to leave: “Well, I know you have several people to say hi to, so I’ll let you go.” Then move on.
Small talk can pay big dividends in strengthening relationships.
Learn more ways to handle small talk with Communicate with Confidence: How to Say it Right the First Time and Every Time. Find it at your preferred book seller.