Even for the most outgoing among us, small talk can be undeniably awkward. Whether you’re starting a conversation at a networking function or are one of the first few people to arrive early for a meeting, filling the silence by talking with people you hardly know can inspire its fair share of sweaty palms.
And, unfortunately, we don’t make this any easier on ourselves. Many of us absolutely dread making small talk—which means when we actually need to do it (which is, unfortunately, often), it often feels forced and cringe-worthy.
So, what can you do? Just keep your lips zipped and sit idly in that uncomfortable silence?
No, you can do better than that. Use these five tips to make socializing at least a little easier, and you’ll no longer groan at the thought of chatting about the weather.
1. Ask Open-Ended Questions
Asking questions is a great tactic for making small talk, as it takes the pressure off your shoulders and gets the other person talking. However, you need to make sure you ask the right questions.
It can be easy to rely on closed questions in casual conversation. I’m willing to bet you’ve started a chat with a seemingly innocuous question like, “Wow, it’s really raining out there, isn’t it?”
And, that’s definitely better than nothing. But, asking open-ended questions would make this exchange even stronger.
By prompting your conversational partner with something that requires more than a simple “yes” or “no”, you have a better chance of getting a real conversation rolling—rather than having to deal with yet another uncomfortable pause after he or she responds with a one-word answer.
2. Start Small
We often put a lot of pressure on ourselves—particularly when it comes to networking. We read all of these articles about helpful conversation starters, and then we feel as if every topic should somehow quickly segue into a huge, detailed conversation about someone’s entire career trajectory.
However, it’s called small talk for a reason—there’s really nothing wrong with chatting about a small, seemingly insignificant topic.
So, don’t stress yourself out by trying to be overly creative or thought-provoking. Go ahead and comment on the weather (as cliché as it might seem) or say something about the appetizer selection. It at least gets the ball rolling.
3. Find a Shared Topic
Small talk is always easier if you can find something in common to chat about—it ensures that one person isn’t left feeling like he or she has nothing to contribute to the conversation.
When getting a conversation started, do your best to find a shared topic. Perhaps it’s the speaker you just listened to. Maybe it’s the fact that you work in the same industry. Or, perhaps you share the same alma mater.
Beginning with something you both have some knowledge on will make sure that both of you feel a little more comfortable.
4. Avoid Over-Rehearsing
When it comes to communication, practice can often be a good thing. Rehearsing your elevator pitch, for example, is a great way to ensure you don’t trip over your own words.
However, small talk is something that you really can’t (or shouldn’t!) rehearse, at the risk of sounding forced or overly robotic.
Instead, just take a deep breath and let the conversation flow freely. In the end, that’ll likely make you less nervous than feeling like you need to stick to a strict script.
5. Remember You’re Not the Only Nervous One
Small talk can cause some anxiety, particularly if you consider yourself more introverted. But, remember this: Even the most eloquent conversational masters likely feel a little uneasy about it.
Give yourself a friendly reminder of the fact that you’re probably not the only uncomfortable one. That alone will give you a decent boost of confidence.
Small talk can be awkward at best. But, it’s often a necessary part of your professional life. Utilize these five simple tips, and you’re sure to make those casual conversations a little less dreadful.
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Photo of networking event courtesy of Caiaimage/Sam Edwards/Getty Images.