5 Tips for Making Small Talk Less Awkward

Small talk gets a bad rap. How many times have you heard someone complain about how much they wish they could cut through all of the "filler" and just talk about what's important? But the truth is, small talk is the most important part of a conversation.
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When I was working as a psychotherapist, I met new clients every day. To do my job, I had to get into the nitty gritty details of my client's lives and discuss things they wouldn't normally be comfortable speaking about with a stranger.

As you can imagine, I knew it was best not to jump right into the often grim questioning.

Me: Hello Stacy, I'm Kevin. I'll be conducting your clinical assessment today.

Stacy: Hi, Kevin. Nice to meet you.

Me: So... ever try to kill yourself?

...Not exactly a best practice technique.

I realized that in order for me to get an accurate "snapshot" of my client's psychopathology, I had to ensure that they were comfortable and willing to disclose their history.

Enter the power of making small talk.

The walk from the waiting lobby to my office is 11 seconds long. Hardly enough time to talk with the client about much of anything, and yet it was an eternity to just walk in silence.

I soon realized that it was this small window of time that could make or break how effective my session with my client was going to be. I had just 11 seconds to convince them that they weren't just another appointment to me. They were someone who once might have been on top of the world -- with aspirations and ambitions, who relished life's victories and cried out in anguish in times of despair just like anyone else.

"Ah, a fellow State fan!" I enthusiastically greeted one of my clients with a smile. He donned an oversized t-shirt of my alma mater, and although I'm not much of a sports fan, I'll take anything I can get when it comes to finding that initial connection. His face formed a half-smirk. I was in.

As we entered my office, we talked about his love for college basketball and how excited he was when he went to his first game. I shared a similar experience and we transitioned into talking about what other things he enjoyed doing for fun. From there it was fairly easy to talk about why he was there to see me today.

Halfway through our session, he let out a small laugh. "I don't usually open up to people," he admitted -- surprising himself with how much he was willing to disclose. But I wasn't surprised. I've witnessed it time and time again in my life. Be willing to make a little small talk with someone, and the possibilities of making connections are endless.

Small talk gets a bad rap. How many times have you heard someone complain about how much they wish they could cut through all of the "filler" and just talk about what's important?

But the truth is, small talk is the most important part of a conversation. There's a lot more going on than meets the eye. Without it, you'd be hard pressed to establish trust, build rapport, and get to know someone.

But you probably already know why small talk is important. What you're more interested in is how exactly to go about making small talk so you can confidently communicate with people around you.

That's why in today's post I'm going to share with you five strategies of making small talk that most people overlook. I've spent a lot of time studying socially confident, influential people and they all share these habits. I also use these techniques in my own life with great success. Implement these strategies in your life and your ability to start conversation with others will take off.

1) Talk to your server

Part of the reason small talk is so intimidating to people is because they're terrified of rejection. Simply put, they're afraid they'll be ignored. Wouldn't it be great then, if you were virtually guaranteed that someone would talk back to you after you made conversation with them? Good news. There is!

So where do you go to find these people?

Any place where you're the customer. That's right, make small talk with your food server. Or coffee barista. Or bartender.

Think about it, the odds of these people being rude or ignoring you are slim to none. If one of your biggest fears is rejection, the best people to practice conversation with are the ones that are literally paid to be nice to you.

But there's another reason this is a good idea. Most service workers will do their best to create a pleasant customer experience for you, but the reverse isn't the case nearly as often. The truth is, most customers are rude, demanding, or just flat out jerks. As the customer, when you treat service workers as people and not servants, you stand out from the rest of customers who don't give a damn about being a decent person. Added bonus: if they like you, sometimes they won't hesitate to give you discounts or other hookups.

2) Make up for others' deficits

The other day I was standing in line at a local coffee shop downtown. As I watched the person in front of me finish making their complicated order, I was astounded. For the entire minute and a half exchange, they managed to completely avoid eye contact with the barista! As I stepped up to the counter to order my Iced Chai, I made sure to greet the barista with a warm smile and said, "I hope you're having an awesome afternoon." The look on her face was priceless. She reciprocated my smile with a bright one of her own and I had no doubt that I made her day.

The point is simple. Sometimes you're going to witness people just being crappy to others. Customer service workers get particularly shafted, but it happens to everyone. If you ever witness this happen, restore someone's faith in humanity by doing an act of kindness -- even if it's just saying a few kind words. Often other people's social blunders open up opportunities for us to form a connection with someone.

3) Express gratitude to people who don't get it enough

Think back to the last time you had an amazing meal while going out to eat. Did you compliment or thank the chef? Hardly anyone does. But giving our sincere thanks to someone can have a tremendous impact.

This is especially true for people who may be under appreciated or overlooked. Giving your chef a compliment is just one of a million ways you can make someone's day. My friend Emily describes this perfectly in her post about how to break the ice with anyone. By taking the time to thank her spin instructor for an awesome class, they got to know each other on a more personal level and she was able to help him achieve his fund raising goal for a cause that was dear to his heart. All of that just because she decided to reach out and say "thank you."

4) Use the person's name

When making conversation with people, learn the person's name and use it immediately. Dale Carnegie has an entire chapter devoted to this concept in How to Win Friends & Influence People.

Remember that a person's name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language. -Dale Carnegie

Using people's names is one of the most universal pieces of advice when it comes to effective communication, and yet few people do it. In a world of "hey man" or "how's it going, dude?" learn to stand out from the rest. Use their name.

I get more in depth on this topic in this podcast where I discuss mastering name recognition and how powerful it can be.

5) Use the C &T method

C & T stands for compliment and transition. I started doing this while I was in college as a way to minimize awkwardness when I wanted to compliment someone I didn't know very well.

The fact is, everyone loves compliments. The reason some of us are scared of giving them out is because we don't want to seem creepy or weird. Conversely, a lot of people don't know how to handle compliments, even if they appreciate them.

Here's how it works.

After you compliment someone, immediately follow up with a question or statement that takes the focus away from your praise.

It could be something like, "I love your outfit, you're dressed so nicely today" followed by, "How's your day going?"

By asking "How's your day going?" you're neutralizing potential awkwardness. Think about it. Imagine complimenting someone and then smiling at them while you both just stare at each other. *shudders*

It's an even better idea to very briefly break eye contact while you ask this to alleviate the pressure of continuing a structured back-and-forth conversation. Small talk should be relaxed and natural. Eye contact does not have to be made 100 percent of the time.

Final thoughts

Small talk doesn't have to be dreadful. Getting better at anything is a matter of frequent practice. Implementing these five strategies daily will not only make you more comfortable with small talk, you'll find that you'll actually start to enjoy it too.

Follow Kevin on Facebook: www.facebook.com/peoplepassionate

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