Terrible weather isn’t it?”, “Up to much this weekend?”, “What is it you do for a living?” – these are some of the many phrases you may have awkwardly uttered in an attempt to bumble your way through small talk, whether it’s with the postman, a stranger or your teenage daughter’s best pal’s parents. As a nation of people who, according to research, spend the equivalent of five months of our lives talking about the weather, it may come as no surprise that many of us find this unavoidable social situation uncomfortable.
“Small talk needn’t be onerous or daunting,” Paul Russell, luxury lifestyle expert (officialpaulrussell.com), says. “Small talk is essential social glue, so to reach greater levels of intimacy, you need to be able to master the first steps of getting to know someone – and that means being able to make small talk successfully. Try and unpack your fears around it and understand what exactly you are fearful of. For many, it’s lighting that initial spark of conversation and keeping the flame burning.”
In order to keep a conversation going, Paul recommends using the A.R.E tool, otherwise known as anchor, reveal, encourage. “Initially, you provide the anchor of a conversation that establishes common ground between the two of you, so perhaps noting that you are both carrying the same bag, or remarking on how busy it is. From here, you should get some feedback. Now, you can reveal a little something about yourself that helps you to further the relationship. Nothing too personal, of course, maybe a little detail about your day or even that you don’t know a single person in the whole room. As they respond, you then encourage them to talk more by asking questions.” This approach is echoed by psychotherapeutic counsellor and life coach Chanelle Sowden (chanellesowden.co.uk) who believes it’s important to show your human side when meeting new people. “By making a little joke about yourself, giving someone your warmest smile or touching someone on the shoulder, you are much more likely to make a true connection and put them at ease, both of which are usually appreciated.” Chanelle also recommends repeating select phrases that someone has said back to them and watching their body language and other nonverbal cues to show your interest in what a person has to say.
Still feeling shy?
Try not to worry about being reserved or coy as talking to strangers is something many people struggle with. Instead, change the way you approach communicating. “If you’re shy, you can always ask the questions and, that way, you’re leading the way the conversation is going,” advises life coach Carol Ann Rice (realcoachingco.com). “Have a set of questions you can rely on such as ‘what’s your favourite thing about coming to this class?’ or ‘how is your job going?’ If you want to be quite subdued that’s completely fine – only share what you’re willing to. As you don’t know them that well, you can set the boundaries. You can also leave whenever you want; you don’t owe them anything. You have the power to set the agenda of how you are perceived.” Another way to avoid feeling uncomfortable is to prepare before an event. “Try learning people’s names before arriving if it’s a small event like a dinner party, or give some thought to what things you can say about yourself if people ask,” suggests Chanelle. If you really are not confident around people, then simply listen. “There is a saying ‘ears never get us into trouble’,” says Carol. “If you want to be likeable and confident, just be a good listener. Ask the right questions and be interested in them. This means you don’t have to exhaust yourself being a social butterfly.”
The smart ways to master small talk
Communications coach Sarah Lloyd shares her essential tips for breaking the ice
Don’t reach for the wine.
You may think the Dutch courage will boost you but, in reality, you may end up saying something you regret. If you must have a drink then limit it to one. Some of us like to hold on to something to make us look busy, so keep that drink in your hand for as long as possible.
Do smile and look approachable.
Remember everyone is human and you are not alone. Strangers are likely feeling just the same as you, so chances are they will appreciate a smile and someone making an effort.
Don’t stop at talking about the weather.
Find a common ground. You can generally figure out if you are getting on with someone just by the way they physically respond. If they politely turn away, take that as your cue to move on to another person. If you hit gold and your person sticks around, don’t just stop there – make a comment about yourself. This can then be a precursor to determining whether the person you are ‘sparking’ with has kids or has watched the same Netflix series as you.
Do identify your ‘type’.
Look for someone who you can relate to. If you have gone to an event on your own, for example, scout for someone else who is on their own or in a small group. Equally, if you’re part of a group, look out for those on their own and try to include them in your conversation – it works both ways!
Don’t feel stuck.
If you have exhausted your conversation with a person – they have to leave, or it just didn’t feel right – you can excuse yourself and move on. Flit from person to person.
How to work the room
Relationship expert Kate Mansfield (katemansfield.com) explains her three-step approach to coping when you’re in a social situation and don’t know anyone
1. Set your intention
Being ‘of service’, as opposed to thinking about what you can get from someone, is a great starting place. This attitude shift really alleviates fear of rejection and can help you to feel more confident. If your intention is to help others, your energy will be more open, inviting and approachable.
2. Be direct
The braver you can be, the more people will feel at ease around you. Starting with compliments such as ‘wow, that colour really suits you’, or telling someone that you admire what they do is great. Immediately, you will create a real connection and you will light up that person’s brain in a positive way, inciting them to want more of you.
3. Don’t forget body language
Open your chest and arms, and face the room. By not huddling with others, you seem confident and give a signal that you want to connect. Staring at your phone, avoiding eye contact and hiding behind other people should be avoided.