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Interpersonal Skills

Making Small Talk and Moving Beyond

Small talk is the “ice-breaking” part of a conversation; it is the way strangers can ease into comfortable rapport with one another.  Mastering the art of small talk —- and how to build from this stage— can open many personal and professional doors.  In this chapter, we will discuss how to start a conversation, as well as how to skillfully ease our conversation starters into deeper levels of talk.

Starting a Conversation

Many people are interested in initiating friendships and productive business networks, but they don’t know how to start. Indeed, going up to a stranger and making an introduction can be incredibly anxiety-provoking for some people. The same goes with finding something to talk about with someone you already know, but are not familiar with.

The following are some tips in starting a conversation:

  • Understand what holds you back. The first step in developing conversation skills is to understand what factors — attitudes, feelings, and assumptions — interfere in your ability to skillfully handle a conversation. Is it shyness? Fear of rejection? Difficulty in dealing with people in authority? Awareness of what holds you back can help you manage your anxieties better, and give you more control over how you handle yourself during social situations.
  • Know what you have to offer. In the same way that you have to make an inventory of your weaknesses during social situations, you also have to take stock of your strengths. Confidence in initiating conversations does not begin with knowing what tried-and-tested lines are out there. It starts with a sincere belief that you have something to contribute to a discussion, and that people would find it a pleasant experience to get to know you. If you have this self-assurance, you can be more at ease and more natural around other people.
  • Be interested about people. Genuine curiosity and openness makes starting a conversation less threatening; it grants incentive to approach people.

Cultivate the attitude that meeting people is an enriching experience. It shouldn’t be that hard; this mantra goes beyond self-talk. Many find that you can actually learn a lot about yourself, about life and about various subject matters, just by simply engaging in constant conversation. And remember: being interested in a people doesn’t end after you’ve spent time with them. Even those you’ve spent years with can still tell you something you don’t know!

  • Create an arsenal of conversation starters. For people not used to skillfully handling conversations, the first few tries can feel awkward. While you’re still finding your footing, you can rely on some recommended conversation starters. Among them are:
  • Introduce yourself. The most straightforward way to start a conversation is to offer your name and your hand. By making the first move in breaking silence, you’re sending the other person an invitation into conversation. If you can make the introduction with a smile, better.
  • Comment on something in your immediate surroundings, maybe the location, or the event you both are attending. Things that you both can relate with are good conversation starters, as it does not alienate anyone. Example: “It’s really crowded tonight, isn’t it?”
  • Comment on something the other person or people would find interesting. For example, if you’re talking with someone known for his or her art collection, you may call attention to an art piece within your vicinity, or inform him about an exhibit you heard about. Example: “Hey Bob, I just heard that the National Museum is hosting a Renaissance week.”

And if you have no prior knowledge about the person you want to strike a conversation with, you can take a guess at their interests by subtly checking what they are looking at, or studying their appearance. Example:  “That’s a lovely brooch. It looks like an antique.”

Relax. “Be yourself” is generally good advice for handling social situations. Conversations are more comfortable and engaging if you simply relax, and let your personality do the talking. Don’t pressure yourself coming up with something funny, clever, or new. Scripts are okay while you’re still developing your social skills, but make sure you also give conversations your personal touch!
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