Even the most accomplished conversationalist might struggle with small talk in the company of strangers. It takes a few tries to find common ground with a stranger, and a few more to realise there might be no common ground at all.
Persistence is worth the effort, however, as studies prove having a deeper, more meaningful conversation, as opposed to surface level chit-chat, is linked with greater wellbeing and happiness. The same study from the University of Arizona also found that, following an assessment of 79 participants’ conversations over four days and recording their corresponding happiness levels, the happiest subjects had had twice as many in-depth conversations as the most unhappy participants.
The thing is, multiple times a day we’re called on to have conversations that classify as “small talk”, and while we know how to ask the essentially useless question of how someone is, it takes a little more effort to have a chat that’s more meaningful. Whether conversing with your barista or your boss, remember that being chatty is one thing, and having a real conversation is another.
Here are a few ways to develop your “deep” chat skills.
Don’t even ask, “How are you?”
Certain questions have a way of swiftly ending a conversation. If you ask something with which a “yes” or “no” will suffice, it’s likely that’s what you’ll get. Instead, as Sheryl Sandberg suggests in her book Option B, get a little more specific: don’t ask “how are you?”, try “how are you today?” That opens up the door to a response less like “busy!” and more towards “busy! My toddler ate Lego this morning!”
Consider the “traffic light” rule
Dr Mark Goulston, author of Just Listen, has great insight into what makes party conversation so often go astray, as taken from radio host Marty Nemko.
Marty says that during the first 20 seconds of conversation, the traffic light is green and the floor is yours to hold. Next, it’s time to pass the baton, as those who speak for more than roughly 30 seconds at a time are often perceived as too chatty. The light is now yellow for a subsequent 20 seconds, during which you risk your listener losing interest and wistfully eyeing the liquor cart. Finally, you hit the red light, whereby you’d better stop talking and throw a question in your interlocutor’s direction or it’s game over.
A lot of us don’t venture past the standard “what do you do?” question upon first meeting a person. While that does tell you a bit about that person, it doesn’t tell you everything – like their personal interests and dreams, what their favourite ice-cream flavour is, and so on. For example, asking “What is your passion?” is likely to draw a more considered response (and tell you so much more about the person too).
Study up with some simple yet effective conversation starters somewhere like Conversation Starter World – you’ll have enough ammo for a lifetime of awkward parties.
Here are 10 more ways to have a better conversation, according to TED speaker, Celeste Headlee.