Making Small Talk and Moving Beyond

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Small talk is the “ice-breaking” part of a conversation; it is the way strangers can ease into comfortable rapport with one another.  Mastering the art of small talk —- and how to build from this stage— can open many personal and professional doors.  In this module, we will discuss how to start a conversation, as well as how to skillfully ease our conversation starters into deeper levels of talk.

Starting a Conversation

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Many people are interested in initiating friendships and productive business networks, but they don’t know how to start. Indeed, going up to a stranger and making an introduction can be incredibly anxiety-provoking for some people. The same goes with finding something to talk about with someone you already know, but are not familiar with. 

The following are some tips in starting a conversation:

  • Understand what holds you back. The first step in developing conversation skills is to understand what factors — attitudes, feelings, and assumptions — interfere in your ability to skillfully handle a conversation. Is it shyness? Fear of rejection? Difficulty in dealing with people in authority? Awareness of what holds you back can help you manage your anxieties better, and give you more control over how you handle yourself during social situations.
  • Know what you have to offer. In the same way that you have to make an inventory of your weaknesses during social situations, you also have to take stock of your strengths. Confidence in initiating conversations does not begin with knowing what tried-and-tested lines are out there. It starts with a sincere belief that you have something to contribute to a discussion, and that people would find it a pleasant experience to get to know you. If you have this self-assurance, you can be more at ease and more natural around other people.
  • Be interested about people. Genuine curiosity and openness makes starting a conversation less threatening; it grants incentive to approach people. 

Cultivate the attitude that meeting people is an enriching experience. It shouldn’t be that hard; this mantra goes beyond self-talk. Many find that you can actually learn a lot about yourself, about life and about various subject matters, just by simply engaging in constant conversation. And remember: being interested in people doesn’t end after you’ve spent time with them. Even those you’ve spent years with can still tell you something you don’t know!

  • Create an arsenal of conversation starters. For people not used to skillfully handling conversations, the first few tries can feel awkward. While you’re still finding your footing, you can rely on some recommended conversation starters. Among them are:
  • Introduce yourself. The most straightforward way to start a conversation is to offer your name and your hand. By making the first move in breaking silence, you’re sending the other person an invitation into conversation. If you can make the introduction with a smile, better.
  • Comment on something in your immediate surroundings, maybe the location, or the event you both are attending. Things that you both can relate with are good conversation starters, as it does not alienate anyone. Example: “It’s really crowded tonight, isn’t it?”
  • Comment on something the other person or people would find interesting.  For example, if you’re talking with someone known for his or her art collection, you may call attention to an art piece within your vicinity, or inform him about an exhibit you heard about. Example: “Hey Bob, I just heard that the National Museum is hosting a Renaissance week.”

And if you have no prior knowledge about the person you want to strike a conversation with, you can take a guess at their interests by subtly checking what they are looking at, or studying their appearance. Example:  “That’s a lovely brooch. It looks like an antique.”

  • Relax. “Be yourself” is generally good advice for handling social situations. Conversations are more comfortable and engaging if participants simply relax, and let their personalities do the talking. Don’t pressure yourself coming up with something funny, clever, or new. Scripts are okay while you’re still developing your social skills, but make sure you also give conversations your personal touch!

The Four Levels of Conversation

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The real art of conversation is not only to say the right thing at the right place, but to leave unsaid the wrong thing at tempting moment. It requires sensitivity to the stage of a relationship, the context of the conversation and the comfort level of the person you are talking to.

There are 4 levels of conversation based on the degree and amount of personal disclosure. They are:

  1. Small Talk: This is commonly referred to as the ‘exchange of pleasantries’ stage. In this level, you talk only about generic topics, subjects that almost everyone is comfortable discussing. These subjects include the weather, the location you’re both in and current events. 

The small talk stage establishes rapport; it makes a person feel at ease with you. It’s also a safe and neutral avenue for people to subtly ‘size up’ one another, and explore if it’s a conversation or relationship that they’d want to invest in. 

If the small talk goes well, you can proceed into the next level: fact disclosure.

  1. Fact Disclosure: In this stage, you tell the other person some facts about you such as your job, your area of residence, and your interests. 

This is a ‘getting-to-know’ stage, and it aims to see if you have something in common with the other person. It’s also a signal that you are opening up a little bit to the other person while still staying on neutral topics. 

If the fact disclosure stage goes well, you can proceed to sharing viewpoints and opinions.

  1. Viewpoints and Opinions: In this stage of the conversation, you can offer what you think about various topics like politics, the new business model —or even the latest blockbuster. It helps then to read and be curious about many things, from politics to entertainment to current events.

Sharing viewpoints and opinions require the ‘buffering effect’ of the first two stages for two reasons: 

  • First, a person needs rapport with another before they can discuss potentially contentious statements, even if they’re having a healthy debate. 
  • Second, sharing viewpoints and opinions opens a person to the scrutiny of another, and this requires that there is some level of safety and trust in a relationship.

The controversial, and therefore potentially offensive, nature of an opinion exists in a range; make sure that you remain within the ‘safe’ zone in the early stages of your relationship.

  1. Personal Feelings: The fourth stage is disclosure and acknowledgment of personal feelings. For instance you can share about your excitement for the new project, or your worry about your son’s upcoming piano recital. Depending on the context and the level of the friendship, you can disclose more personal subjects. This stage requires trust, rapport, and even a genuine friendship, because of the intimate nature of the subject. 

Different people have different comfort levels when it comes to disclosing feelings, and there are cases when you’d need several conversations before they would trust enough to open themselves. In some cases, you never get to this stage. Just make sure to be sensitive and test the other person’s readiness before opening an intimate topic. 

Listening is vital in all stages of the conversation but especially so in this fourth stage. Listen with empathy and understanding to acknowledge that you heard the feeling that they have shared.

Case Study

Karen was attending a crowded art exhibit when she saw Bryan, a local artist, standing away from the crowd. She walked over and said, “Hey, sure is crowded in here.” He agreed, and introduced himself. Karen had recently taken a class on communication skills, and the lesson on the four levels of conversation were still fresh in her mind. She began making small talk about the exhibit, to which Bryan was receptive. They made small talk for a while before Karen asked about Bryan, and they discussed their jobs and interests. After learning a little about each other, they started discussing personal opinions and viewpoints about some of the art on exhibit and the artists.