10 tips to talk about anything with anyone

We all fear the awkward silence when we're expected to make small talk with a stranger. Perhaps it's at a business dinner, and you're sitting next to a new colleague. Maybe it's a new prospect waiting in your lobby for her roommate before you all tour the community.


How about when you’re in a high stakes situation such as a job interview when you’re expected to outshine the competition? Then there’s always the blind date. How can you turn it into the start of something big (assuming you want to)?

Everyone has a different conversational style. If you have an extroverted personality, you can probably be planted in any social situation and at least get the small talk started without feeling too much pain. If you’re on the introverted side, however, these situations can make you cringe. All you can think about is how much you’re like to escape. Most people are somewhere in the middle on the introversion-extroversion dimension but everyone has moments of greatness and everyone has moments of utter failure when the pressure is on to be scintillating.

Success in the small talk domain is a lot like success in other social situations, including online chats, job interviews, and social networking. The basic premise is that you find common ground with the people with whom you communicate by using the right amount of self-disclosure, empathy, and tact. I’ve found that perhaps the most useful guide for small talk sphere comes from the person-centered approach to therapy of Carl Rogers.

In the 1970s, Rogers made tremendous contributions to counseling and clinical psychology by teaching therapists how best to listen, reflect the feelings of their clients, and turn these reflections into change-promoting insights. Obviously you’re not going to perform psychotherapy in your chats with random social companions. But you can use the insights provided by Rogers to smooth over the rough patches in your chats with strangers. Add to these pearls of wisdom a little social psychology, and you’ve got a perfect formula for succeeding no matter who you’re talking to or how much you dislike or are averse to meeting strangers.

Enough small talk; on to those ten tips.

1. Listen. Too often when we’re meeting someone new, we try to fill the dead moments with chatter about ourselves. Far better for you to listen first, talk second. Of course, someone has to start the conversation, but if you and your companion actually listen to each other and not worry about what to say next, things will flow more naturally.

2. Use empathic reflecting skills. The next level of Rogerian communication involves restating what you heard or at least what you think you heard. This will show that you’ve been listening and will also allow your conversation partner to clarify, if in fact, you are way off in your judgment of what you thought you heard.

3. Turn on your nonverbal detectors. Rogers was well known for his ability to read the body language of his clients. It’s easiest to do this if you refocus your attention from how you’re feeling inside to how you think the other person is feeling based on that person’s nonverbal cues. If the person seems uncomfortable with where the conversation is heading, shift gears. Though some people enjoy debating politics, religion, and sex, other people would rather keep things light. Learn how to gauge the impact of what you’re saying by reading bodily cues such as posture, eye contact, and hand movements.

4. Avoid snap judgments. If you follow the steps above, you’ll be less likely to misjudge the person with whom you’re talking, but we all suffer from the temptation to rush to conclusions about people based on superficial cues. Things aren’t always what they seem to be when meeting someone for the first time. If you’ve listened carefully, reflected back what you heard, and kept your nonverbal channel open, you’ll be less likely to make a mistaken judgment based on outer cues.

5. Be an online detective or behavioral profiler. You can help your case even further if you have the chance to find out ahead of time who you’ll be meeting along with a little bit of their history. Then you’ll be prepared to ask questions that will be relevant to the people you’re meeting. If you don’t have the opportunity, practice your behavioral profiling by using the visual cues at your disposal (think Sherlock Holmes who could infer occupation by looking at someone’s hands).

6. Don’t assume people will agree with you. Research on social psychology shows that many of us engage in the “assumed similarity bias.” It’s not safe to conclude that because you are opposed to one or another political party that the person you’re talking to is as well. Debates can make for enjoyable conversation. If you assume everyone feels as you do, though, it’s likely you’ll get started on the wrong foot and end up with it in your mouth.

7. Try to learn from each interaction with a new person. A person you’ve never met before may have been places and done things that you haven’t yet or will never do. People from other places, including countries other than your own, can give you new perspectives. They will only open up if you show that you’re interested. You can expand your knowledge of other regions, cultures, and nations, ultimately making you a more interesting conversationalist as well.

8. Stay on top of the news. Being familiar with current events is absolutely the best way to have enough topics to bring up in any conversation. The topics don’t have to be weighty nor do they have to involve in-depth expertise. Even knowing what the number one box office hit or what the hot songs or videos are is better than being oblivious to what is going on in the world around you.

9. Know when not to talk. Some people prefer no conversation at all, especially in confined situations such as public transportation. You might think it’s great to while away the boring hours on a long airplane ride by conversing with your seat neighbor. However, if you’re getting cues from that passenger (or others around you) to the contrary, then take the hint that your silence would be considered golden. If you find yourself constantly doing this wherever you go (and getting negative feedback), make sure you won’t be bored by bringing along something to read or do to keep yourself amused.

10. Don’t overshare. Perhaps you’ve heard the adage that it’s ok to tell strangers your most private secrets. After all, you’ll never see them again. Right? There are 3 flaws in that argument: 1. You may see that person again, or that person might know someone you know. In the six-degrees-of separation world that we live in, it’s amazing how quickly your personal secrets can spread. 2. People feel uncomfortable when they hear a stranger’s deepest secrets. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. How would you feel if you heard someone you hardly know tell you about their love affairs, medical condition, or family disputes? 3. Oversharing can make you a bore. Though we can choose not to read the tedious everyday ramblings of our Facebook friends, it’s a little more difficult to do this in person. If you go back to tip #3, you should be able to judge when you’re about to commit the sin of TMI (too much information).

Meeting new people and having to make small talk isn’t everyone’s favorite pastime, but if you follow these simple tips, you might find yourself enjoying some of the “extra’s” to balance off your inner introvert.

Author: Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., psychologytoday.com