Athletes don’t just saunter onto the field and begin to play. They warm up first. And effective communicators don’t dive right into deep conversation. They start by making a genuine connection. One of the easiest ways to connect is with good small talk. Why is small talk important? That’s easy. Engaging in small talk builds trust! It also helps people evaluate if they want to take the conversation deeper. So if you want to know how to make small good talk, then keep reading. These effective communication skills are for you.
What is Small Talk?
Before sharing our favorite communication strategies, let’s first define what small talk is. So what is small talk, exactly? Simply stated, small talk is a casual attempt to form a genuine human connection. Author Lynn Coady echos this. She states, “That’s all small talk is – a quick way to connect on a human level.”
Engaging in small talk is kind of like being a rock climber. You’re searching for that initial point of contact. If a connection is found, the relationship elevates to the next level. If not, the conversation quickly fades. No harm is done. And both parties can find someone they better connect with.
British anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggests humans can only maintain 150 stable relationships. And our capacity for close friendships is much smaller. But how do we decide who to let into our inner circle? The answer is by engaging in small talk. We don’t have the capacity to connect with everybody. Making good small talk helps us find the right people to connect with.
Meeting New People with Small Talk
Small talk is not just about meeting new people. It’s also about making the right connections–people we actually want to spend time with. From this perspective, small talk may actually be some of the biggest talking we do. Consider the following small talk quote. Nick Frost says, “I’m not good at meeting people, and I’m not good at small talk.” Nick makes the correlation between small talk and meeting new people. And he’s right. Effective communication starts with a tiny moment of connection. And the relationship deepens over time. This is how the best friendships are formed.
But what if you hate small talk? We’ll tackle this question next.
Help, I hate Small Talk!
Do you wonder how to make small talk when you hate small talk? If so, you’re not alone. Amanda de Cadenet Says, “I hate small talk! I can’t do it.”
But don’t dismiss small talk yet. First, imagine the alternative. If small talk didn’t exist, strangers would start conversations by going deep. They might say something like, “Hi! It’s nice to meet you.” This sounds innocent enough, right? But this casual introduction would be followed with questions about your personal finances, politics, religion, sex life, and thoughts on death. Yikes! This stranger might tell an offensive joke. He may share thoughts about your physical health or make unsolicited remarks about your appearance. Yikes again!
According to a Very Well Mind, these are the worst topics for starting a conversation. Yet, in a world without small talk, this is precisely how people would act.
If you wonder, Why do I hate small talk? The answer might be that you never understood the importance of small talk. Or, it could be because you don’t have the skills to confidently engage in small talk—at least not yet!
Now that we’ve seen how frustrating a world without small talk would be, let’s find out if learning new communication skills is right for you.
Who benefits from effective communication?
Should I learn small talk? and Is learning new communication skills worth the effort? Only you can answer these questions. But before deciding, consider this small talk quote. Caitlin Moran says, “I am not good at small talk. I will hide in a cupboard to avoid chitty-chat.” Hiding in a cupboard is certainly an option. We’re just not sure it’s the best choice.
Lots of people are intimated by small talk. Even Courtney Cox, the Friend’s actress who makes good communication seem effortless, says, “I’m not great at small talk.” Fortunately, small talk skills can be learned. And just who benefits from effective communication? The answer is everybody! By getting out of your comfort zone, you make new friends. And someone in need of a friend gets to meet you. It’s a solid win-win!
Now that we’ve established the importance of small talk, let’s discover how to make small talk easier. We’re about to share eleven of our favorite effective communication skills. Then, we’ll conclude with some small talk examples and a few small talk questions to ask.
So if you hate small talk, you could hide in the cupboard. But this would be a disservice to everyone. Learning how to communicate better is by far the happier choice.
11 Effective Communication Skills for Good Small Talk
The best way to learn small talk is to practice often. But don’t go in blind! Here are eleven effective communication skills that practically guarantee the conversation will go better. The best part is these communication skills are stackable. You don’t have to learn them all. But the more skills you apply, the better the conversation will go!
According to Dale Carnegie, the renowned author of How to Win Friends and Influence People, a smile is a simple way to make a good first impression. An old adage says, “smile, and the world smiles too.” This is not only good communication advice, but it’s also scientifically correct. A simple smile ignites a mirror neuron chain reaction. Mirror neurons are “a type of brain cell that respond equally when we perform an action and when we witness someone else perform the same action.” This is why when we see a baby smile, it’s nearly impossible not to smile back.
Research also shows that smiling makes people feel happier. This is why smiling is such excellent small talk advice. When you start with a smile, the other will likely smile back. You’ll both feel happier as a result. Bam! Just like that, you’ve created a communication win.
The first effective communication skill is to start with a smile. This might be the easiest communication win of all time!
2. Be the Thermostat and Set a Positive Emotional Tone
Warning, ignoring this small talk advice could result in negative relationships. The goal of being a good communicator isn’t simply to meet new people. It’s to meet the right people. Charlie “Tremendous” Jones says, “You will be the same person in five years as you are today except for the people you meet and the books you read.” When it comes to who we spend time with, it’s important to choose wisely.
Keeping the conversation upbeat is a good way to attract positive people. We call this being the thermostat and not the thermometer. A thermometer rises and falls based on its surroundings. A thermostat sets the temperature of the room. When it comes to small talk, be the thermostat by setting a warm, positive tone for the conversation.
You might do this by sharing a joke, telling a humorous story, or by expressing gratitude. When you have the opportunity to complain or be positive, choose joy.
3. Physically Turn Toward
Our next piece of communication advice is to turn toward the person you are conversing with. This is also called using good micro skills. When engaging in small talk, turn your body physically toward the other person. Uncross your arms and legs. Some suggest this is a nonverbal way of communicating “I’m open to what you have to say.” Turn toward others with your eyes too. A soft, gentle gaze that is occasionally broken communicates interest. The key to good eye contact is balance. An unbroken stare feels intimidating. While avoiding eye contact communicates disinterest.
Experts suggest that anywhere from 70 to 93 percent of all communication is nonverbal. That’s a lot of communicating without actually saying a word. So turn toward the other person with your eyes and body for another quick communication win!
4. Gradually Increase Into-me-see
We define intimacy as into-me-see. It’s the ability to peer into another person’s inner world while simultaneously allowing yourself to be known. It can feel awkward when a stranger’s life is an open book. And some information is best reserved for the safe people in our life. But how do you find out if someone is a safe person? The answer is easy. With small talk!
By starting the conversation on a light, positive note, you build a genuine human connection. If the conversation goes poorly, it’s easy to walk away. If it goes well, the door is open to go deeper. In healthy relationships, there is balanced sharing. That is, both of you are getting curious, asking good questions, drawing out each other’s inner worlds, and building increased trust over time.
Small talk idea #4 is to build trust slowly. Gradually increase your level of conversational into-me-see over time.
5. Be Interesting
If you’ve ever wondered how to make interesting small talk, the answer is easier than you think. More than anything else, people are interested in themselves. This is good news for communicators. It means you don’t have to wrack your brain thinking up creative topics for conversation. Instead, you can just ask good questions.
A second way to be interesting is to keep your radar up. Did you hear a funny joke? Perhaps you read an interesting article in the news. Maybe something out of the ordinary happened on the drive over. All of these can be ways to initiate small talk.
Communication Skills Example: The best small talk topics are interesting topics. Perhaps this is why so many people chit-chat about the weather. We live in Minnesota, where you can literally feel the season change in your sinuses and in your bones. Engaging in weather-related small talk is hardly unique. But where we live, it is interesting because everyone is affected by it.
6. Be Congruent
Being congruent develops trust. Congruence means that what is going on inside of you matches what’s happening on the outside. It’s a fancy way of saying, “be authentic.” If you’re feeling happy, be sure to notify your face and put on a smile. If you’re nervous, it’s okay to say so.
If the person you are speaking with tells an off-color joke, it’s okay to cringe. Remember, the goal of learning how to make small talk is not to make friends with everybody. It’s to develop genuine relationships with the right people. Congruence—or a willingness to show authentic emotions—helps others know what kinds of conversations are okay and not okay to have around you. If someone doesn’t appreciate you for who you are, that’s fine. Remember, you only have the capacity for about 150 connections anyway. Use the communication skill of congruence to connect with the right people.
Effective Communication Tip: Tears are not great for small talk. But they are appropriate for our deeper conversations. When it comes to showing genuine emotion, the key is balance. Be authentic. Just avoid going too deep too fast!
7. Keep the Conversation Brief
Keep your initial conversation brief. Keeping the conversation short leaves others wanting more. This small talk tip is also a mindset shift. Enter the conversation with the intention of meeting multiple people. You can always go back and continue the conversation later. Small talk is about making a genuine human connection. It builds trust. And allows both parties to evaluate if they want to take the relationship deeper.
So be brief—especially in group settings. This allows you to stick to the goal of connecting with the right people. If the idea of small talk feels painful, and you are like Jack Thorn, who says, “I find small talk exhausting,” this is probably because you are staying in a dull conversation. Perhaps this feels easier than meeting someone new. Our communication advice is to plan on keeping conversations brief and meeting multiple people. Then, return to the people you want to get to know better. This mindset shift will help you connect to the right people.
8. Show unconditional Positive Regard
This communication strategy comes from the renowned therapist Carl Rogers. Unconditional positive regard means you are for the other person. When you meet someone new, send goodwill their way. Genuinely want to see others succeed. And be for them. This small talk advice works because everybody loves a cheerleader. If you’ve been on the receiving end of unconditional positive regard, then you know the power this type of positivity hold. To improve small talk, give the gift of unconditional positive regard to others by starting each conversation on their side!
Communication Skills Example: I once asked a pastor how he gave such good sermons week after week. He replied, “That’s easy. I imagine everyone I meet carrying an invisible bowl of tears. Most people hurt more than we know. Remembering this helps me to connect.” When making small talk, imagine the other person holding an invisible bowl of tears—trust me, they have one. Then be on their side. Smile. Give a high-five, fist bump, or a gentle word of encouragement. This not only makes small easier, but it’s also genuinely helpful communication.
9. Don’t just Communicate, Connecticate
Connectication is a combination of the words communicate and connect. We define connection as any type of communication that draws two people closer together. Connectication is often done side-by-side. And guys, in particular, respond well to this communication strategy. Connectiction might look like engaging in small talk over a game of golf, while walking, or getting a project done.
If you want to make small talk easier, we suggest adding an activity to the conversation. Talking while sharing a similar interest is a great way to take the conversational pressure off. This makes longer pauses feel more natural. Some people communicate better around a bonfire, on a hike, or with a cup of coffee in hand. To help the conversation flow, don’t just communicate, get active and connecticate!
Communication Skills Ideas: To make communication easier, try combining small talk with a favorite board game. Or meet at a coffee shop. Go for a run. Driving and road trips are excellent places to connect. Crafting, art projects, and baking are also excellent times for casual conversation too.
10. Get Curious
The next important communication skill is to get curious. Having a mental list of 2-3 small talk questions can be a helpful communication strategy. Fortunately, you don’t need hundreds of small talk ideas. The best way to keep a conversation going is by tapping into authentic curiosity.
Albert Einstein said, “The important thing is not to stop questioning.” We’re fairly sure this statement was made in the context of science. But we include it here because it’s also excellent conversation advice. So what else do you want to know? A genuine interest in the other person will serve you well. It also keeps the conversation flowing.
Communication Skills Example: Just because you don’t need a list of hundreds of conversation starters doesn’t mean this doesn’t help. Before my wife and I married, we worked through a number of creative conversation starter books. We asked these questions on dinner dates, over morning coffee, on road trips, and by summer bonfires. But a quick word of caution. Many of these creative questions took us deeper than small talk. So diving into one of these books might be a good next step.
11. Listen Actively
Willam Doherty writes, “A 1995 national survey found that less than a third of Amerian families eat dinner together most nights… When they do sit down to dinner together, over half of American families say they have the TV on.” This means most people are not used to being listened to.
Have you ever been listened to deeply—so deeply it could almost be felt? If so, you know that listening is powerful. It’s a gift! When engaging in small talk, don’t only focus on the talking piece. The best communicators get curious. They ask good questions. Then they stop talking and listen intently.
To be a good listener, maintain eye contact. Nod your head and follow up with appropriate “uh-hu” to let the other person know you are tracking what they say. Then, give a verbal receipt by summarizing what you heard. You might say, “I heard you say… Is that right?” Effective communication involves speaking and listening. Remember to also focus on the listing piece. It’s important!
Small Talk Examples: Casual Conversation in the Wild
The most magical small talk example I can think of is the story of how my parents met. You might say that I exist because of small talk. In the 1960s, my dad returned to the United States after his draft into the Viet Nam War. Both he and my mom were on the same college campus. As the two passed by each other, my mom made a casual comment about the weather. She remembers saying, “That breeze sure feels good.” This was enough to get my dad’s attention.
He was captivated but nervous. My dad says he was so anxious he almost kept walking. Then, he thought to himself I just got back from fighting in this messy, crazy war. If I can do that, surely I can keep this conversation going. So he did. And the rest is history!
It’s astounding to think my parents might not have met had my mom not made a simple comment about the weather. Or had my dad not responded. That’s the power of small talk!
10 Good Small Talk Questions to Ask
The best way to learn small talk is to practice small talk. Here are ten good small talk questions to ask. While none of these conversation starters are magical, they may feel like magic. Everybody has an opinion. And most people enjoy talking about themselves. Starting small talk may be easier than you think. Simply ask your favorite question and get quiet fast. You might be surprised at how easily the conversation flows.
- What’s the most exciting thing you’ve done this week?
- Which sports do you enjoy watching the most?
- If you could have any superpower, what would it be, and why?
- Imagine how it would feel to win the lottery jackpot. What would you do first?
- If you could travel back in time and meet anyone, who would it be? Why?
- Imagine you have the opportunity to have coffee with any living person. Who would you meet, and what would you talk about?
- What was your first job like?
- What adventure do you hope to have in the future?
- Looking back, can you describe a favorite adventure from the past?
- If you had the opportunity to travel this year, where would you go? Why?
Next Steps for Better Communication
Now that you know how to make small talk, it’s time to get to work. Put these 11 communication skills into action and see how they work for you. Oh, and when you’re ready to take the conversation deeper, you’ll want to check out these 71 Conversations to Help Your Relationship Grow.
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