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How to master the art of small talk, according to experts

The end-of-year festive season can take its toll on even the most extroverted of people. After all, there’s only so much small talk a person can endure (that must be why so many Singaporeans choose to leave the country during the festive season instead).

But don’t be so quick to dismiss small talk as trivial and mindless. “Every great romance and each big business deal begins with it. Bernado Carducci, director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast explains. And with that newfound and positive attitude towards banal conversations and awkward moments (who are we kidding?), here are some tips from experts to help you master the art of small talk.

Yes. We’re this excited about meeting randos.

1. Ask questions

“The key to successful small talk is learning how to connect with others, not just communicate with them,” explains Carducci. To do that, you need to build rapport through conversation. Of course, in an ideal situation you’ll immediately find common ground with the person you’re talking to, but in most cases, it takes time.

Start with an open-ended question. Imagine this: a question like “Did you just get here?” leads to a yes/no answer, and leaves little room for a more conversation. Instead, ask questions that lead to stories, not one-word answers. For example, a question like “What are you looking forward to doing this weekend?” forces the other person to share information that might give you insights into his personality.

“I’m all ears.”

Now, here’s the more important trick to small talk. It’s not so much about the first question asked, it’s all about asking follow-up questions, says Debra Fine, author of The Fine Art Of Small Talk. “Follow-up questions are key because otherwise conversations are just question after question with no connection or in-depth real conversation,” Fine explained in an interview with HuffPost. Follow-up questions don’t just open up the possibility of establishing a connection with the other person, it makes the other person feel like you’re interested in their lives – and who doesn’t like to feel that way?

2.  Learn to listen

In the face of awkward social situations, most people obsess about what to say next in a conversation. In The Art Of Conversation: Change Your Life With Effective Communication by Judy Apps, she explains that while that’s totally understandable (who wants to be the one responsible for killing a conversation?), doing that distracts you from listening and ironically, prevents you from being able to continue the conversation effectively.

Do as puffin does: maintain strong eye contact when someone is yakking away and listen.

Learn to cast your insecurities aside, and give someone your undivided attention.

Your body language changes when you do that, and the other person feels acknowledged and in turn, is more willing to engage with you. Active listening allows you to actually pick up on clues you need to craft your next response.

In general, listening makes you a better conversationalist because you work on the assumption that another person’s story is interesting and worth your time, as opposed to seeing small talk as purely functional to kill silences. And with that, you keep an open mind to building meaningful connections with people.

3. Mirror the other person

Psychologists have long established mirroring as a great way of establishing rapport. (This Forbes article talks about the science behind it)

In mirroring, you adopt another person’s mannerisms and way of speaking. People who are in love or are hitting it off naturally mirror each other but even if you’re not feeling it, mirroring the random person you’re speaking to at a party has benefits – it puts the other person at ease, creates feelings of closeness and increases the changes of the conversation running smoothly.

Monkey see, monkey do: one of the easiest ways to build rapport

Take note, mirroring is not a creepy exercise of mimicking the other person’s every action. It’s about being sensitive to the person’s tone, specific phrasing, sentence structures and gestures.

For example, if the other person has a calm energy and talks in a sedated, monotonous version, being all hyper and exuberant is going to make him uncomfortable even if you have the best intentions. You don’t need to adopt the person’s manner of speaking to the tee, but bringing down your energy levels a few notches to match his will make him feel more at ease.

4. Arrive early

If you’re having social anxiety, arriving early to a party might seem like a crazy thing to do. But as Kathryn Hall, owner of The Business Of Introverts – a consulting and coaching firm for introverts – explains, it’s a lot more intimidating to enter a party when it’s already in full swing. Arriving early means the hosts might have time to talk to you, and make some introductions. It’s also easier to strike conversations when you’re in a smaller group. It takes more time to infiltrate a social setting by the time groups are established at a party.

Arriving early also allows you to better analyse the group dynamics, and pick your battles.

You can choose to avoid singular conversations with particularly intense people, latch onto an extrovert and let them do most of the socialising, or discover like-minded individuals to hang out with.

5. Know when to stop

Sorry to interrupt you, but you’ve put everyone to sleep.

Sometimes when we’re nervous, we just end up talking non-stop. It’s put-offish – nobody likes someone who dominates the conversation. Plus, it prevents you from picking up cues that people are bored. Remember, it’s a party so people are going to politely nod regardless of what is being said.

“Poor conversationalists might feel like they’re on a roll and get excited, and not realize they’re dominating. If people are interested, they’ll ask questions when you stop,” Carducci explains.



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