August 20, 2014

Small Talk Tips from TED

You receive an invitation to a party.  Great, right?  That is, if you're an extrovert.  However, if you're a gregarious introvert, suffer from social anxiety, or are just plain shy, a party invitation does not feel great.  It can feel debilitating.  

As if on cue, you develop a common cognitive error, a case of the dreaded What Ifs:

What if I'm left standing by myself and nobody will talk to me?  
What if someone starts a conversation and I'm tongue-tied? 
What if I try to interject myself into a conversation but they ignore me? 

While there are no guarantees, most socially anxious people catastrophize:  They imagine the worst before attending a gathering of any size, even more so when the only person they expect to know at the party is the person having the party.  And most people find, after attending the party, that it wasn't nearly as bad as they expected.  That, in fact, people did start conversations with them.  That they they did, in fact, come up with decent replies.  And that when they approached a group of people already talking, they were politely welcomed into the conversation.

Still, it helps to review some basic guidelines about small talk.  To boost your confidence.  To improve your end of the conversation.  What is the best way to start a conversation with an unknown person?  How does one reply to a stranger's ice breaker in a way that avoids the awkward silences?  

The good people at Chris Colin and Rob Baedeker, have come to our rescue with three pointers.  

1.  Ask open-ended questions that invite stories, not short replies:
      How do you know Sharon? 
      How did you get into the accounting field?
      What has college been like for you so far? 

2.  Avoid the common pitfall of answering their question by mirroring the question and instead turn their question into an opportunity to get them talking more: 

Isn't this heat awful?  

Instead of:                                                        You can say:  
Yes, this heat is terrible.  I hate it.                        Yes. It's times like these I wish I lived in                                                                                                        Minnesota.  Have you ever lived in a cold                                                                                                    climate?"  

This is a great building, isn't it? 

Instead of:                                                          You can say:  
Yes, it's beautiful.                                                  Yes it is. What do you know about this house? 

Have you known Greg and Julie for very long?

Instead of:                                                           You can say:  
Not really. I met them at work.                               I know them from work.  What about you?                                                                                                   How did you meet them? 

3.  Give an unexpected response.  Something slightly offbeat that will lead the person to become more interested in what you say next.    

Instead of:                                                          You can say:  
Yes it is. We really needed it.                                I was ready for it. My goggles and life jacket                                                                                                are all set to go.
What are you studying at the university? 

Instead of:                                                          You can say:  
I'm a history major.                                               I'm majoring in student loan debt with a                                                                                                          minor in hope I get a decent job. 

You can learn that you are not alone by reading what others have to say about their own social anxiety, here. But by all means, read up on more suggestions for improving small talk here and here and here. Read the  suggestions of others, practice them, and RSVP a confident yes to the next party invite.

-Sandy Andrews, Ph.D.
CBT Cognitive Behavioral Psychologist 
Austin, Texas

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