You’re invited! To the company party, or maybe a friend’s wedding, or a community group outing—whatever it is, it’s on your calendar. All great chances to meet new people, right?
But maybe events like these, the ones that require small talk, bring more anxiety than excitement. You think, I won’t know anyone there. I really should go—but I don’t want to. I hate small talk.
Small talk has earned a bad rap, because it usually represents meaningless and trivial conversation. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Research shows that those who have more meaningful conversations are happier and more fulfilled, and small talk can open the door to interesting and meaningful connections, if you are aware and listening.
Related: How to Speak Well… and Listen Better
But real conversations are harder with people we don’t know. These tips can help take the stress out of small talk and create a quality conversation:
1. Get your mind right.
If you spend the week anticipating and worrying because you know you will feel uncomfortable, you’ve set yourself up for failure. Remember why you are going—to celebrate a friend on his or her special day, to meet others who share your interest or connect with your co-workers.
2. Decide who you’d like to meet before you go.
Take a look at who else will be there and plan to meet those who might share something in common. This might be someone who knows a mutual friend, a fellow baseball fan or a business owner living your dream.
3. Make a game out of it.
Trick your mind into making it seem easier and more fun. Commit to at least an hour. Plan to meet at least five people. Challenge yourself to learn two new things. This mind shift can help tame the anxiety and make the conversation more fun.
4. Take responsibility for meeting others.
Don’t wait for others to approach you. Say hello first. When you expect others to make the first move, you’ll be disappointed. And the more you do it, the more comfortable you’ll be.
5. Don’t be the sidekick.
Rather than being the shadow of the one person you already know, branch out. Meet others on your own.
6. Have your “go-to” questions ready.
Starting a conversation with a new person can be hard. Try, “How do you know _____?” “What is keeping you busy these days?” or “What brought you to this area?” It doesn’t have to be complicated, just something to get you started if you you’re new acquaintances.
7. Be interested. Listen more than you talk.
Asking questions is the secret ingredient to interesting conversations. Stay away from yes/no questions. You can naturally start with easy questions that feel natural, but listen for an interesting comment to explore and build upon.
As an example for how your questions might flow:
- How do you know Allison?
- I didn’t realize you were a graphic designer. What kind of design do you do?
- Why did you decide to get into graphic design?
- Oh, I went to school in Miami, too! Where are your favorite places to go when you go back?
- Do you think of Miami as home? How did you make the move from there to here?
Within a few questions, you can move to more substance and a real conversation.
Related: The Power of Asking Questions
8. Be yourself!
No one likes the fake networker. In the interest of being more outgoing, don’t be someone you aren’t. Putting out effort doesn’t mean being fake.
9. Compliment and shift.
Find something that you can genuinely compliment the other person on and then shift to a question so it isn’t awkward. Everyone loves a nice compliment.
10. Plan a graceful exit.
Every conversation runs its course, but a natural end is hard. Just say, “It’s been great to meet you, and I hope you have the best vacation next week.” Excuse yourself to do something else and move on.
11. Look for others who want to connect.
I recently went to a large celebration event and only knew the busy host. I noticed another guest taking her time at the snack table and introduced myself. We had a great conversation while those around us caught up with longtime friends.
12. Be an introducer.
If you are talking with someone and another guest looks a little uncomfortable, invite him or her into the conversation. Remember the times when you were that uncomfortable person and try to include others.
13. Don’t be the “hammer looking for the nail.”
Your favorite topic isn’t everyone else’s. You might love your new grill or your favorite book or TV show, but don’t assume everyone else is interested. Gauge the conversation and flow with it.
14. Don’t expect too much.
Not every get-together will result in new friends. That’s OK. You still accomplished your goal of going when it was easier not to—you were there supporting a friend or a co-worker. And that is enough.
15. Get in the habit.
Don’t constrain this habit to social events. Say hello to the person next to you on the plane before you grab your headphones (I’m working on this). Talk to your waiter. Ask your Uber driver about his day. The habit of saying hello and listening is a muscle you can develop by working on it every day.
Try some small talk. You might be surprised where it takes you.