One of the hardest parts for me when trying to be more social was simply being able to chat with people. The few times I did instigate a conversation with people was when I knew the other person well, I knew some of the things they were interested in, and typically would have a bunch of questions already prepared before I went up and spoke to them. Being able to speak to anyone about any subject seemed alien to me, I never thought I would know how to small talk.
I suppose the first step in learning how to small talk was to overcome my own mental block I had put in place. I wasn’t good at small talk, and I knew it. So whenever I was in the situation where small talk was required I would typically be thinking “oh shit, I need to talk to this person, what can I say? I wish I was good at this sort of thing. Why can’t I be good at small talk?…” and so on. None of this is helpful in a social situation and it stops you from coming up with interesting things to say or ask. I realise now that these thoughts were just fuelling the fire, encouraging an endless loop of negative thoughts. The more I thought I was no good at small talk the worse I became, and the less I spoke.
Tips on how to small talk
Here are a few of the things that I find really useful. I found them all helpful at different times when learning how to small talk, but you only need to use the ones that work best for you.
1. Sing to yourself
You may think “Oh dear, James has really lost it”, but bear with me here. My problem was because I generally didn’t speak much I never really used my voice much at all. In fact, before I met my girlfriend if I wasn’t at work I could easily go a full day without ever talking. I never really thought about it at the time, but this meant when I did come to speak to someone I found it unnatural to use my voice. That meant I was dealing with the social situation, trying to think of things to say and also using conscious thought to speak.
Now I sing to myself quite a lot and it really helps me use my voice more, and generally makes me feel much more confident. Now, before you ask I’m a terrible singer and I don’t let anyone hear me, but if I’m alone in the house or in the car (the car is my favourite place to sing) I let go of my inhibitions and sing. Try it for yourself!
2. Practice small talk with people close to you
Don’t wait until you are in new and unfamiliar territory to try to make small talk. Practice with people you interact with on a daily basis. This means the small talk is on your terms, and if you use people you are seeing every day (or most days) it’s much easier to get yourself in the habit of talking to them. It can be a family member, neighbour, work colleague, even the postman! Ask how their day is going, comment on the weather (this works especially well for the postman as they are outside all day), ask what they are up to at the weekend. Do you notice a pattern in the suggestions I am giving here? Asking questions…
3. Ask questions and listen to the answers
You don’t always have to be the driving force in the small talk conversation. Asking open questions can shift the talking to the other person, taking the pressure off you while letting conversation flow. Just remember to listen to what they are saying and react accordingly. Knowing when to laugh, look sympathetic, agree and so on can really help you keep the conversation moving without having to say much.
4. Be genuinely interested in meeting other people
This is something I know I have been bad at in you the past. Never judge people before you meet them. If you think you won’t like the person you won’t have much to talk about, and you won’t be engaged in the conversation. Try to approach everyone with a positive attitude, and be enthusiastic to meet them. To use a cliché, it may be a friend you’ve not met yet.
5. Let your curious side shine
We are all curious by nature. That’s partly how the human race has been so successful in exploring new places and discovering new things. We all love to learn things. Speaking to others is a great way to learn about things you never knew before. If you treat new conversations as an opportunity to learn new things it can help you become engaged and interested in what the other person is saying. It also helps you know how to small talk better with others, using your new knowledge in other conversations in the future.
If you need more help in how to be better at conversations check out this online guide to gaining conversation confidence