For many people, striking up a conversation with someone they don’t know is not easy. Just the thought of making polite, casual conversation, often referred to as small talk, fills them with dread. In a work meeting, at a dinner party, in a new class, on a date—even the most social people can find themselves in situations where they’re trying to think of something to say to fill an uncomfortable silence.
At the same time, if you ask people who dislike small talk if they enjoy a meaningful conversation, they probably would say yes. In fact, studies show that engaging in substantive conversations is linked with greater happiness and well-being.
But to get to those more satisfying conversations, you often have to start with small talk. Think about it: The people with whom you have close, significant relationships were once strangers. And chances are your first conversation involved some form of small talk—maybe even about the weather.
“Small talk is the necessary overture to deeper communication, the key to generating business leads and dates, and a pathway to a richer life in which strangers are transformed into acquaintances and then friends,” says Debra Fine, author of “The Fine Art of Small Talk: How to Start a Conversation, Keep It Going, Build Networking Skills—and Leave a Positive Impression!” “It’s worth putting up with a bit of small talk, because often it lays the foundation for something richer.”
The key is to let go of your fear of small talk and focus on using that opportunity to create more meaningful conversations. These four tips will show you how.
1. Ask open-ended questions
One way to cross over from small talk to a more meaningful conversation is to ask questions that require more than a one-word answer. For instance, maybe you start by asking where someone is from, but then you follow up by asking what they miss—or don’t miss—most about their hometown. If you’re at a work event and ask someone what they do, you could then ask how they got into that field.
Open-ended questions tend to encourage people to talk, which generates a more interesting, dynamic conversation. As a bonus, a study by psychologists at Harvard University found that people who ask questions tend to be better liked by their conversation partners. Not so surprising, when you think about it. When you ask questions, you’re giving the person a chance to express themselves and share their opinion, which research shows most of us enjoy.
2. Be a good listener
To help figure out if you’re connecting with someone while exchanging pleasantries, you need to pay attention to what the other person is saying. Sounds obvious, but often we’re so worried about filling awkward silences that we spend half the conversation in our head planning what to say next. Don’t plan. Be fully present. And listen. What you’re listening for is common ground to see if this conversation is worth continuing. Careful listening also provides information for those follow-up questions and will help the talk flow more freely.
3. Send a signal that you “get it”
Remember, people you’ve just met don’t know what you think about even the most basic subjects. So if you like where a conversation is going, you need to let them know. That’s where conversational support indicators come in, those interjections that confirm “we get each other” and signal the person to “keep talking, I’m interested.” These can be verbal cues, like “of course!” or “really?!” Or you can simply nod your head in agreement. When people realize they’re connecting, they become more relaxed, more talkative, and tend to reveal more of themselves.
4. Dare to share
You don’t have to immediately share something super personal. Any level of self-disclosure can be a powerful way to connect with someone. For example, experiences like, “I adopted a puppy over the weekend,” or “My 6-year-old rode a bike for the first time yesterday,” open up avenues for conversation.
As the conversation continues, you can introduce more personal stories or opinions that show who you are and how you think. This is how small talk evolves to the next stage. Shared, personal stories and feelings create a stronger connection than facts or more neutral information. Research suggests that self-disclosure helps people begin to feel closer to each other, often because when you share something with someone, it encourages them to do the same.