For many adults, teenagers and tweens, making small talk can feel nothing short of torture. Unsure of what questions to ask to keep a conversation going, when to chime in or what topics to talk about in a zoom room or with someone they are interested in, their conversations are stilted. Joining a conversation may feel impossible, so they sit silent and are ignored by peers.
Adults and Teens. Want to Make Friends? Small Talk are Opportunities to Connect
Small talk between classes, at social events, in small or large groups and when you run into someone are all opportunities to connect and to begin to nurture a friendship. Bonds are not created over night. Small conversations and interactions help us connect and feel each other out and to increase sharing and intimacy. Similar to dating, we guage people to see if there are mutual interests or a connection.
Why Relationship Building Skills Are So Critical For People Who Are Anxious, Introverted or have ADHD
Anxious and introverted people are often unsure how to proceed with conversations. Building a conversation involves feeling someone out, getting to know more about them and sharing information about yourself. Knowing someone’s likes and dislikes is essential to building a conversation.
When you don’t engage in small talk with co-workers, peers or friends, others are unclear if you are awkward, shy or disinterested. They may assume you are just plain rude.
Without communication and interaction, no one can get to know you and you don’t move deeper into sharing, connecting and intimacy. You are not “left out” – they just don’t get to know you and can’t connect enough with you to really become friends.
Relationship building skills are critical in order to bridge to longer conversations. This reciprocal sharing builds relationships.
Let’s Start At The Beginning, What Exactly Is ‘Small Talk’?
Small talk is a light conversation, or “chat” around a topic that you engage in for a few minutes or use as a bridge to longer conversations. Small talk is lighthearted and relaxed.
The goal of small talk depends on the person you are talking to. If you are trying to bridge from small talk to a friendship, then finding out more about the person and adding to the conversation is key.
Small talk has a purpose. It is not pointless as some have coined it. It allows you to bridge from “hi” to a deeper relationship.
The Value of Small Talk:
- Curiosity – A way for us to feel each other out, see if there are shared interests and get to know each other better
- Purpose – Allows for different conversations for different purposes, with different people.
- Build Relationships – Reciprocal sharing over time allows you to nurture relationships and It makes the other person feel comfortable and welcome.
- Reduces Anxiety – Keeps conversations light, so others don’t feel uncomfortable or bombarded.
- Recognize Cues – Helps you interpret social cues in an effort to create an amicable environment.
Start with social spy – If you are at a loss about what to talk about with someone you run into often or someone you want to build a friendship with, start by covertly watching and noticing them. Listen and observe. What do they talk about with others? Do you know what they like to read? Are they members of a club or sport? When you come from a place of really trying to find out about the person then you have a reason to talk. Ask questions and see what they like and are interested in.
Also, observe other reciprocal conversation to have a model of what staying on topic looks like and how other people engage in chit chat and what they do that you might imitate.
Nonverbal communication is 90% of all communication. Start with approachable body language. An “open stance” with your body facing the other person will help them feel comfortable. Don’t cross your arms, fidget with your phone or stand too close.
Place yourself in an environment where people congregate and practice starting the dialog first.
8 Steps to a Conversation
1. Greet the other person – Start by saying “Hello.” If you don’t know their names, simple remind them of yours. Smile and look attentive.
2. Ask questions or comment on a shared experience or interest – Starting a conversation can feel daunting but just asking a question can begin the reciprocal and light nature of chit chat.
Examples of open questions: “How are you?” “Wow did you see that traffic jam?” “Loving this snow, Do you ski?” “I love summer, how about you?”
Build on the comments of the other speaker – Small Talk is reciprocal. Focus on each of your comments building on the last comment from the other person. You can ask a question to learn more about what the person said! Practice staying on topic and note if the other speaker is veering to a new topic or staying with the original topic. Be curious. Feel them out. Ask them questions.
Examples of adding comments:“Tell me more about xxx.”.
3 . Build Common ground – The more you chat with someone and engage in shared experiences, the more you get to know them and the more you have to talk about. Joining groups, clubs, sports and activities with peers gives you opportunities to spend time with them and learn about them. Bonds are not created overnight. You have to build on topics which in turn helps you know more about people.
4. Listen – Listening is a key to communication. Practice listening to people and recap or reflect back what they say to you. Look the other person in the eye and try to be present and respond to what they have to say. It is very common to want to jump into a conversation. When a person sees that you are already thinking about what to say, they know you are not listening, which give the impression that you are not really interested. Just sit back and let the other person talk. Be present and in the moment.
No one can argue that good listening skills are critical for every part of life. To practice listening skills at dinner, make eye contact, physically turn your body toward the speaker and wait for your turn to join in the conversations. If the speaker notices that you already formed a response, they surmise that you are not listening, and therefore not interested. Sit back and let the other person talk. Be present. Ask, “Please share your highs and lows for the day.”
5. Make Supportive Comments – Making short comments to let the speaker know you are listening and agreeing. It encourages the speaker to continue.
Do you feel tongue tied when commenting for fear of saying the wrong thing or making it about yourself? This is a case where perfect is the enemy of good. Don’t over-think it, just do your best to make the author feel supported.
Examples of supportive comments:
“Thank you for putting the time into explaining this to me” or “Thank you for the work you do.”
“This gives me food for thought.”
“Mmm, I get that. Oh that’s tough, oh wow, I hear ya, how interesting.”
6. Read Body Language and Nonverbal Signals – 70% to 93% of all communication comes is nonverbal. Body language conveys a lot about the person and their intentions. Have an open and welcoming stance. No one wants to engage with someone standing with his arms crossed, yawning. In daily life, spy and watch people in conversation at a food court or on the street and ask yourself, “What does this facial expression mean?” Play a game guessing what their body language tells you.
7. Use bridging questions and comments to keep the conversation going – Be curious, but be careful not to turn your conversation into an interrogation. If you are discussing a Netflix series, for instance, ask thoughtful questions about what makes the them prefer this series to another. Which series do they not especially like?
Examples of bridging comments:
“Tell me more about that,” “Oh, interesting, Mmm, I never heard of that, I would love to know more.”
“Oh, interesting,” “Mmmm, I didn’t know about that.” “I would love to know more.” “I hear ya!”
8 Practice – Ask close friends, your partner or family members to help you practice or give yourself a mission to practice once a day. Practice the pieces of making chit chat at family dinner, in the car or on a walk. Check for cues such as eye contact and reading body language to see signs that the person wants to continue talking.
Conversation Topics To Talk About
Making conversation is about being curious and being reciprocal. The art of making small talk is to help you find out about others and to detect common interests. Chit chat is light and breezy. Use your curiosity and share your interests and common experiences so they can learn about you. Try to step into their shoes when possible. Empathy is a very valuable “glue” when connecting with others.
Every friendship builds over time and has stages. You use your curiosity. Share what you like to do and engage the other person in shared experiences.
Example of small talk topics:
People you know in common
You tube, tv shows, movies
Big events on the world stage
Conversation Topics To Avoid
Chit chat is light and breezy, so try not to overshare or venture into topics that might be off putting. You are trying to build rapport, not get into a heated debate. When you over share, then other people feel flooded or bombarded. And they also wonder can you keep their secrets?
Watch Your Tone – Your voice matters, and how you project your tone can change the meaning of what you are trying to say. You might want to praise someone by saying, “I can’t believe you did that!” But if you take the wrong tone, it may come across condescending. Be careful of a tone that is harsh, jarring, passionate, aggressive, abrasive.
Topics to avoid:
- Body fluids, family trauma, raw emotions, odors, hygiene, sexual history, religion, politics, personal finances, health, gossip and overly vehement opinions.
- Don’t share personal details of life, thoughts, memories, opinions, dating history, family drama, secrets and flaws – they are off putting and unexpected.
Questions To Keep A Conversation Going
Through small talk, you are detecting whether this is someone you want to continue building a friendship with and to see if they can earn your trust. Keeping a conversation going may be painful, I get it. This can be especially true if you are at an event and having an awkward conversation. Not everyone is comfortable making small talk, but do your best to keep the conversation moving forward. As my Grandmother said, “Every stranger is just a friend you haven’t met yet!”
Examples of questions to keep a conversation going:
“How is your day going?”
“Do you like (insert teacher, situation, activity, coach)?”
“How was that (insert situation)?”
“What was that like?”
“I noticed (insert something you noticed that is public and not going to lead them to feel weird).”
Body Language 101
People send messages with their body and voice. We many not feel comfortable vocalizing our thoughts, but we can send overtures to indicate that we are interested, bored, etc. in order to encourage you to share or keep talking.
What is body language?
Body language is the use of physical behavior, expressions, and mannerisms to communicate nonverbally. Communication is the key to success in both personal and professional relationships. Nonverbal cues or “body language” speak even louder than spoken words.
Your gestures, posture, tone of voice, how much eye contact you make—send strong messages, whether you know it or not. They can make others feel comfortable around you, or they can engender distrust or confusion.
Examples of nonverbal signals:
Facial expressions – facial expressions are universal. The facial expressions for happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, fear, and disgust are the same across cultures.
Eye contact – sideways glance, roll of the eyes
Body position – crossed arms, their foot is pointed away from you, looking over shoulder
Voice – flat or monosyllabic
Participation – not responding or adding to the conversation, looking at their phone
How To Gracefully End or Exit A Conversation
Approaching someone and starting a conversation, although sometimes awkward, is an act of positive behaviors – smiling, engaging, welcoming. On the other hand, ending a conversation can be based on less friendly behaviors – backing up, abruptly ending mid-sentence or walking away.
To shore up a rapport with someone with whom you want to talk to again, practice these exit lines, both in person or virtually:
“Well, nice to see you.”
“Good chat. Until next time.”
“I’ve got to get back to work, but I look forward to hearing how things turn out for you.”
“Glad to hear you are doing well. Let’s connect again soon.”
Who is your audience?- Consider who you are speaking with and what your relationship is with that person. Are they a friendly stranger, an acquaintance, a coworker. Consider What is your level of intimacy with this person? What do you know about them? What is your relationship with them?
The more you find out about someone the more your intimacy with them grows. Your level of intimacy and knowledge about someone coincides with your trust and knowledge of past experiences with someone. Sharing with someone is building trust. Past patterns help you understand someone and help you predict how they will react to a topic.
Rather than thinking of small talk as boring or pointless, remind yourself that every form of conversation has a different purpose and that small talk is beneficial to both you and your partner.
The point of small talk is to get to know colleagues, clients, neighbors, teammates, on a personal and/or professional level. Staying positive and steering clear of taboo topics while still engaging in conversation is a recipe for success!
Social Skills Deeper Dive
More actionable advice, exercises and videos can be found in the Store
Adults with ADHD Social Skills Training: How to Get Along with Everyone – 2-Part Seminar with Caroline Maguire – Starting December 7, 2021
Rusty Social Skills Bundle – Everything you need to help students return to the classroom for the development of critical social skills.
From “Hi” to a Full Conversation – How to adapt conversation starters to initiate small talk.
Joining a group Infographic – Make joining a group less intimidating – and more fun!
Building a Conversation Infographic – Learn how to engage in reciprocal give-and-take
Steps for Joining a Group Video – Step by step details to comfortably and successfully join a group
How to Read the Room as an Adult – Managing Perceptions and Engaging Successfully