Mastering the art of small talk for professionals in any situation

Everyone has that same fear when meeting new people or in any social situation, that we are going to be that person others are trying to avoid, the boring person who people just want to get away from. Small talk, as most of us recognize, can be intimidating and something many grow to hate, and this is often worse in professional situations.

Polite conversation about unimportant things, that just about sums up small talk, but for those who dread engaging in small talk, there is a lot more to it. What topics should I talk about? What if I have nothing to say? What if I say something awkward for some reason, or something others just find utterly uninteresting? I mean, how long can you go on about the traffic, or the weather?

The problem is, that small talk is not something you can ignore, it is the key to building new professional relationships that can really help your career. As Debra Fine, author of The Fine Art of Small Talk said, "Small talk is the appetizer for any relationship". As such, although it can seem a scary thing to do, it is something that you should work at, and the good news is, that it really is something you can improve and feel more comfortable with.

There are some things you can do to improve things for yourself, here are some top-tips from the experts.

Taking your small talk to a networking event

Anyone can feel trepidation walking into a room of strangers, and it can be especially daunting for those who are not the most sociable or talkative. However, it is worth remembering that it is not just you, most of the people in the room probably feel as nervous as you do.

The fact that others are nervous is important, and can be a real help, as the international president of Toastmasters, Jim Kokocki noted. "Walk into the and room take a minute to look around. Grab a drink and go find someone who's standing awkwardly themselves. Say something like, 'Hello my name is Jim. What brings you to this event?'". Seeking out others as uncomfortable as you can make the process easier to deal with.

Some experts suggest setting small, achievable goals to give you something to focus on, the goals can be as simple as meet one new person at the coffee break. Once you accomplish the goal, take a break and a drink of water. The setting of goals can boost your confidence by giving you a short, achievable goal to aim at that helps focus your mind. It is often the case that once you start a conversation, things just fall into place, and you will be fine.

Refining your small talk and becoming an expert

There are some things you should always remember when it comes to small talk.

Be Prepared.

Do not wait until the dreaded silence before you start thinking about topics of conversation, indeed, that is perhaps the worst time possible to try and think of something to say. Instead, prepare two or three subjects that you can talk about before you get to any event, along with conversation starters, such as 'have you been here before' or similar.

Open ended questions such as that, along with your prepared topics, should get you through any situation and let you get conversations started, and just as importantly, keep them going with good follow up questions.

Take control

One thing experts tend to agree on is that the key to small talk is taking on the burden of other people's comfort. That means take control, and when you are asked a question, one of the common conversation starters we have discussed, make sure you have a really great answer to put the other person at ease and make the continuance of the conversation easier for both of you.

It is also important to be an active listener, don't just stand there, nod, add in the odd 'yes', 'really' and so on to let people know that you are not just listening, but interested in what they are saying. It is important to actually listen, don't tune out.

As we have talked about already, open ended questions are great conversation starters, but there are some to avoid. Asking questions about kids, or if they are married is problematic, if you are talking to someone in the middle of a divorce, all you are going to get is the dreaded awkward silence. Stick to more benign questions, 'What has been the best part of the even for you?' and so on.

What is off limits?

Common advice will tell you to always avoid religion and politics, but this is not necessarily right. When approached the right way, either can prove interesting. The key is to this is to accept it is OK to have different opinions and be opposed to something, ask for others opinions, but do not try and tell them that your view is right. Simply accept that you differ, and things can be fine.

However, while all that is true, it is a fine line to walk, especially in a formal setting such as a client meeting or job interview, and unless you are sure of the group you are with, there are few benefits to bringing up controversial subjects when there are other options available.

What happens if things go wrong?

If someone brings up a topic that does cause things to get heated, or divides the group and makes everyone uncomfortable, there are options available to ease the issue. Let someone finish speaking, and then say something like 'That is really interesting, I guess we will all see how it plays out' and move the conversation on to a new topic to avoid further stress.

Always try to solve such problems without being confrontational, for instance 'It's been great meeting you, I'm going to mingle a bit more while we have the chance' lets you exit a conversation without offending anyone. The Muse has some great ideas to get out of conversations without causing offence. The one thing you must never do under any circumstance is lie to get out of a conversation, it will come back to haunt you at some point and is just not worth it.

Keep your focus on others

Experts all agree that the easiest way to end a conversation is to constantly talk about yourself. Debra Fine narrows it down even more, suggesting that if you talk for more than 4 minutes about yourself, you are overdoing it and should stop.

Instead, focusing on the other people in the conversation helps avoid that awkward situation where we are just concentrating on ourselves, and instead we should aim to make others feel good about themselves by showing interest in, and asking questions about, those people. This is much more beneficial for productive, enjoyable conversation for everyone involved.

Questions that seek to find out more about the other people are also a great way to keep the conversation going while also getting good feedback. If someone tells you they just returned from a holiday, you can ask where they went, what they did, what the food was like and so on. Answers here can also let you engage more, 'I've never tried that food' or 'that's my favorite seafood' and so on, creating an easy back and forth that is the hallmark of good small talk.

No one starts out as an expert

Even those who write books about the subject and are considered masters of the art started out as beginners, Debra Fine for instance was an engineer who could not understand the point of small talk. However, once she realized the importance of networking and making those connections, she took the time to learn and improve her own skills.

We all start out nervous and unsure, it is a process of learning, understanding and improving. Everyone can become better at small talk with some guidance and practice.

The key word there is practice, like any skill, the more you do it the better you become. If you truly want to master the art of small talk, then seek out networking events where you can practice your conversational skills.

Set a goal of talking to one stranger a day and see how you go. There are several apps to help you track progress, including Way of Life, Balanced or Coach.me, or if you would like more formal training, find a local toastmaster club. Their training program takes around 18 months to complete but is very comprehensive.

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Posted on Apr 18 2017

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Mastering the art of small talk for professionals in any situation

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