January 30, 2010

Small Talk, Big Skill

Very often in therapy, building friendships becomes a behavioral goal. Two of my earlier posts talk about finding oneself with too few friends and some general strategies for finding friends. This post will give some suggestions on what to actually talk about once you have found people worth getting to know.

Putting yourself in a situation where you can meet people is an important step in the friend-building process. A next, big step and helpful skill is the art of initiating a conversation. A step many people find very anxiety producing. A step many believe they are no good at. A step many people are too afraid to try. A step the leaves people avoiding social situations altogether.

It may be a comfort to know that many people experience social anxiety and many people report having trouble coming up conversation starters. So it never hurts to remind yourself that you're not the only person who struggles to break the ice and make small talk.

But when two people are standing next to each other, and the idea is to socialize, somebody's got to do it, right? And it may as well be you. Especially if you're motivated because (a) you want more connections in your life and (b) someone has caught your eye.

And you never know, the person you're eyeing could be more shy than you. Could be hoping you talk first. Could welcome an end to the awkwardness. This is when you can take a deep breath and tell yourself that your attempt at small talk might just be appreciated.

There are three main types of small talk that I will cover: (1) Ice Breakers (2) Introductions, and (3) Follow Ups. Today's post will concern itself with Ice Breakers. In a later post, or two, we'll talk about Introductions and Follow Ups.

With Ice Breakers, here are some suggestions to keep in mind:

(1) You're not trying to make a deep connection the first time you meet. You don't need to dazzle or impress. You're just trying to get some conversation, any conversation, started. So keep your opener short and simple.

(2) The less you know the person, the less personal your comment or question. Keep your comments neutral and general. Focus on something around you, not about you.

(3) Likewise, the more conventional your location, the more conventional you will want to keep the conversation topics. Conventional means neutral, common, general, maybe even boring. Don't ruffle feathers. Don't try to be profound. Keep it light and upbeat.

If you are in an edgy nightclub, at a rock concert, or watching performance art, taking risks might work. But in general, it's safer to keep your comments bland. You don't know this person yet, or very well, so you don't want to startle, pry or challenge. You want to keep it comfortable. And the less you know about a person, keeping it bland is the safest bet.

(4) Look for something you have in common with the person you're trying to talk to. You may be wondering, what if I don't know this person very well? How you can I possibly know what we have in common. Well, here's the answer. At a minimum, what you have in common is your location.

So look around you. Whether you're in the same room or standing on the same sidewalk, at a minimum you've got your physical surroundings in common. And always? There's the weather.

Here are some general topics along these lines:

4The weather (again, it works).
4Traffic (everybody hates it).
4The building.
4The club, organization or group that is holding the function.
4The sports team that's on the television above the bar (but only if he is paying attention).
4The music that's playing.
4The people you both know.
4The class you're both taking.
4The store in which you're standing in line.

Here are a few examples of Ice Breakers:

At a house party: "Who do you know here?" Or, "How do you know Jon and Cara?" "Do you know this neighborhood very well?"

At a wedding: "Are you here with the bride or the groom?" "How long have you known her?" "Their vows were so unusual. Do you know if they wrote them?" "I know the bride but not much about the groom. Do you know how they met?"

At a neighborhood barbeque: "Do you live in this neighborhood?" "I can't believe how overcast it is today. I hope it doesn't rain." "I see Donna has put in some new landscaping over there. She's really keeping her yard nice." "It's been ages since I've had barbeque. I definately brought my appetite with me today. How about you? Are you much for beef brisket?"

At a restaurant or nightclub: "Have you eaten here before?" "Did you have to wait long for your glass of wine?" "What do you suggest on the menu?" "Have you tried the sushi here? Is it any good?" "Where do people park in this town? It took me forever to find a place."

If you look back at the Ice Breakers I suggested, they mostly tend to focus the topic of conversation away from the personal, away from the individuals involved. Instead they direct the questions to people and things around them.

When someone doesn't know you very well, they may not be interested in discussing anything very revealing about themselves. So wait a good while before asking questions of a personal nature.

Sometimes the person you approach will respond to your ice breaker in a talkative way. But there's also the chance of a lengthy pause, an awkward silence. So a future post will talk about the next step, conversational Follow-Uppers.

Meanwhile, picture yourself in a recent situation where you wish you had tried to start a conversation. Or you did make an attempt but didn't get very far. And now refer back to my suggestions and see if you can come up with a few Ice Breakers of your own. Practicing in your head, or covert rehearsal in CBT language, is a good way to up your chances of success the next time around.

A few links you might find helpful:

Tips for Starting Conversation with People you Don't know by Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen

And there are books on the topic:

Small Talk: The Art of Socializing by Kathy Schmidt, Louise Jordan, and Marisha Rogers

The Art of Mingling by Jeanne Martinet

Painting: The Conversation by Shelley Grund

Sandy Andrews, PhD is a Clinical Psychologist and Psychotherapist in Austin, Texas