Skillful Small Talk (II)

So, you've successfully started the conversation. What do you do when the conversation threatens to stall or simply dry up. The solution: ask a question. Questions are the lifeblood of any small talk! Intelligent questions make the conversation interesting. If you ask clever questions, you'll learn more about the others. But don't put them under duress: this is not an interrogation! 

Good questions are always open-ended, i.e. they cannot be answered with a simple "Yes" or "No". These include all questions that start with what, how, when, where, why, or who. Here are a couple of examples:


  • Opinion questions: What do you think about that?
  • Feeling questions: How are you handling that? (Be respectful in how you ask this!)
  • Action questions: What other plans do you have?

If the other person responds, wonderful! But this is not the moment to switch off. The key here is to listen actively. People want attention. So show the other person that he or she has your attention by:

  • Do not look out of the corner of your eye and checking out who else might be out there to talk to. Do not let your mind wander.
  • Do not interrupt or try to switch the subject.
  • Confirm that you're listening with verbal cues: uh-huh, oh?, mm-hhh, sure, etc.
  • Reflect the other person's body language with your own.
  • And take what they say and their feelings seriously.

This brings us to the second important aspect for successful conversation: Understanding. We might think of ourselves as being very tolerant. However, it even happens to old pros that they sometimes let the other person know that they don't understand, particularly in times of stress:

  • How can this be too complex for you?!
  • What's the problem?!
  • I don't understand what you're saying!

These kinds of responses leave the other person feeling rejected. The message that you're indirectly conveying is: I have no desire to deal with you and your stuff. Are you stupid? You can't seriously mean that?

There's no reason for you to make such a statement that you don't understand the other person, at least not until much longer into the conversation. It's better to show your empathy and ask:

  • I see. Could you please tell me why you think that it's too complex?
  • I'm standing on the hose. Why isn't it working?
  • What do you mean when you say... (paraphrase what you've heard).

Understanding is closely related to another basic human need: people want affirmation from others in the conversation. Sounds easy, but it's not! We constantly refuse to grant this affirmation. Listen to the conversations around you. Either we don't respond at all and change the subject or respond with a piece of advice. An example:

A: The project needs to be done by the end of the week; this means working late for the whole team. 

B: Get your act together: maybe you should have started your planning sooner. 

Who wants to hear that? What person A really wanted in response: "I know. That's tough, but you'll manage!"

Even if you disagree and most likely would like to contradict that person, you should be diplomatic. Agree with him or her initially. Then you can differentiate your position. This will be much better received by the other person. If you say directly what you think, people often take it personally. They don't see it as a difference of opinion, but as a rejection. That's not a good turn in the conversation!  So don't say: No, I don't agree!" Rather, say something like: Yes, I can understand that. I've also noticed, however, that..."

If you think this all sounds a bit fake, then remember what's at stake: The more you satisfy the wishes of the other person you're talking with, the better the conversation. The other will respect you more and pay better attention to you. Don't be surprised, if the other person then tries to meet your needs openly. He or she got something and now is willing to give you something in return!

So we now have to ask: How do you take the conversation to the actual topic? In most cases, small talk moves on all on its own, because the parties know that there is still something important to discuss. If you're not sure if all are aware of this, then you should say so at the beginning of the conversation. If someone doesn't get the hint, then it helps to look at your watch. 

Then skillfully change subject with a sentence such as:

  • Actually we should talk about ...
  • You know, I love talking about vacations, but I really need to ask you about...
  • I could spend all day talking about ... with you. How are things going with ...?

It's similar when you want to end the conversation. Make sure to be appreciative and respectful of the others. It's good to have a few phrases on hand to help you end the conversation, such as:

  • It was nice talking with you. A very interesting conversation: until next time ...
  • How time passes! I think I have to go now...
  • You must surely need to talk to someone else. I just noticed a colleague over there, whom I need to speak with today...
  • Very interesting topic. We'll see each other soon. We exchanged email addresses, didn't we? I'll write you an email...

For the pros among you, a few words about body language. As described above, small talk should be relaxing. Your body language should be relaxed in a way appropriate to the context. Pay attention to the following things and strengthen your positive affect:

  • Don't stand too close: an arm's length in Europe and North America is a comfortable distance. (Watch how close the others stand and take their cues.)
  • Maintain eye contact: this demonstrates you're paying attention.
  • Smile, if it fits the situation. Appropriate laughter is perceived as intelligent and personable!
  • Avoid touching the other person.
  • One hand should always be visible. The other hand can hold a glass, files, etc. or can be behind your back. [Don't put it in your pocket: this is considered rude in some cultures.]
  • Avoid nervous gestures such as playing with your hair or with a pen. If you're nervous, don't fiddle. Focus on the conversation.

I hope you enjoy trying these ideas! With a little practice, you too can become a small-talk expert.