Making the Most of Small Talk

by Aron Daniels

It’s easy to get caught in a rut when it comes to social situations. We all know the basics of small talk. We ask about work, the spouse and kids, and the friends we have in common. If we recently saw something they posted on social media, we will ask about that too, and then the conversation ends as you make an excuse for more appetizers and proceed the as the same questions of next person. Polite conversation at a social event: check that one off.

How can we change this pattern? You learn to walk a fine line between the easy getting-to-know-you starter questions and the deeply personal and interrogating questions with the person with whom you’re having a conversation. The best conversations are those that leave you feeling as though you’ve made a genuine connection, but don’t make you feel uncomfortable about having over-shared or been left vulnerable. So, where’s the middle ground with small talk that gives you this connection?

Here are some guidelines for how to have a good conversation:

No ulterior motives.People can feel motive. If you are talking to someone only because you are trying to sell them or set them up for something, the conversation is going to hit a wall very quickly. Your motive in talking to someone should be connecting with them as a person.

Don’t focus on yourself. Yes, you should let them know who you are as well, but we live in a culture where people tend to talk about themselves most of the time. It’s not your job to hype yourself up. You are getting to know someone else and they will feel appreciated if you give them time to tell their story. It’s fairly typical for a person to walk away from a conversation without feeling like the other party really listened. You can be the exception—make them feel heard.

Let them see the real you. Everyone has quirks and oddities. Those things make us amazing. If you are listening to someone and they hit on a topic that is one of your quirks, let them know. People truly connect when they know these funny little things about each other. Tell them a story about how what they said connects to you.

Ask good questions. People have rehearsed their answers to the basic questions at every other social event they’ve attended. You probably know how they will answer before you even ask the question. They have been “so busy lately,” and their kids are “crazy but good.” They probably don’t even realize they’ve had a conversation with you when that’s as far as it goes. They won’t remember half an hour later. If you do start with the basic questions, be sure that they are just the starter questions.

Here is a good way to think about questions. There’s not a list on the “right” questions to ask to work the room. Consider which topics make a person come alive when they talk about them. If you can touch on those topics, it will really impact how meaningful a conversation becomes. 

People spend a lot of their time at work, on emails with clients, and powering through their to-do list. They don’t need to rehash work with 15 strangers at a party. Ask about what they do when they’re not working, what they want for their future, what local attractions and restaurants they enjoy. Find out what kind of books or movies they like, what charities they care about, one project they have always wanted to do, something that makes them proud of themselves. You get it. 

People are complex and interesting. We all have that second layer where some of our character starts to come through. Maybe you can find people’s true sense of humor, or a boundary to be aware of, or something endearing. Your job isn’t to manipulate people into feeling a certain way. Your job is just to go where the questions lead and enjoy the story someone is unfolding for you.

At the end of the night, there might be some conversations ended quickly, but there might be others through which you discover a new friend, a new mentor, a new person to help with something. When you allow people tell you who they are, small talk changes. I challenge you, next time you are in a social situation, don’t go for the basics. It’s going to change your life if you’ll just take things one step further. Be yourself, share what makes you tick, learn about other people, and maybe have a glass of wine or a beer, too. 

%d bloggers like this: