Those dreadful elevator rides with the person or people at work you never speak to.
Those lulls in the day in meetings where you find yourself speaking the way you never speak.
Those instances at a family function you find your voice at a different octave asking questions that invoke a mannerism you find consistent with kindness.
No matter how little it’s spoken about, we all have these situations arise in our everyday lives. We wait for those seconds to tick away so we can escape that eternal awkwardness and be free. Those moments always seem to last the longest — especially when you dread them the most.
It doesn’t need to be dreadful. It doesn’t need to be awkward. In fact, the things you’re asking about are probably just bad. You know they can be better. Yet, your ability to make a connection in that short span of time seems thwarted. Sometimes, by you. Sometimes, by the universe. Other times, you can’t explain why the words don’t happen the way they need to.
Here are some things to make those connections during small talk suck less.
Stop asking “How are you?” or “How are you doing?”
With any coworker in any work environment, if I got to know them after a while, I drop the formality. I don’t follow a code. I realized that if I immediately begin speaking about cool things with my mom or my sister, I should do the same with the people in social or professional environments.
Conversation, and, small talk, both need to be natural. Opening with mannerisms because you believe in structure only creates artificial barriers that impede your ability to connect. Connection is natural. I might be doing something in the day, then I’ll immediately tell my sister something interesting. It isn’t preceded by a “How are you?” or a greeting. I go into it. I’m excited about it. It’s not frantic, or maddening, or anger. It’s simply natural.
Talk to others as if they’re your best friend. If you show interest, they become interested. According to Harvard researchers, question-asking increases likeability.
Nobody wants to know about the weather.
Get the words out. Get them out early, too.
You know how to speak. You do it all the time around the people you love. A part of that realization needs to connect with the fact that the people around you also have families and friends, too. Their lives and yours are not so different. They don’t think about words before they push them out around those loved ones.
Like the last point, speaking is natural. If you talk early, the rest flows. If you get stuck in your head, you’ll waste your chance and someone else might speak in your place. It’s easy to get in your own head if you believe there is an optimal time to get the words out.
Context for segue.
So you begin to speak and now you’re listening.
Transitioning to another topic is quite easy. Pick up on something that the person says. It could be a hobby or sports or a comment they made about a certain idea. Expand on them or connect them to things that you connect with. All of a sudden, you now have an entire branch of things to connect with no matter what.
Turning small talk into a meaningful moment is as easy as paying attention for the clues people give away. Those clues can be as easy as asking follow-up questions.
That’s a human being — and so are you.
Most people freeze at the bridge of their anxiety. Breathe. The person you are trying to speak to is a human being. Even though we like to think that most of us are different, and, by extension, our lives are different, they’re not. Most of us do the same things.
You’d be surprised that most of the people around you even think the same things. This is called sonder:
The profound feeling of realizing that everyone, including strangers passed in the street, has a life as complex as one’s own, which they are constantly living despite one’s personal lack of awareness of it.
If you speak your mind, chances are people will relate to that more than anything else. Breaking the ice is being comfortable speaking from your core truth.
When you smile, your words are warmer.
Execution is as important as the content. If you’ve sat through PowerPoint presentations, I don’t need to say much more.
If you’re smiling, there is a positive, warm energy behind the words. How you are saying things is as important as what you’re saying.
Make the conversation easier.
If you find yourself in a group, connect ideas and concepts and questions that someone talks about with the other people in the group. If someone is talking about a specific problem, and somebody else knows a lot about it, then it is a great way to toggle someone else into the conversation with you.
People feel great when they’re included.
Don’t take the negative or indifferent reactions as a personal insult.
If you want to get better at making meaningful interactions out of those short instances of time, you need to be realistic. Everybody is not going to react positively to you wanting to speak to them.
Half of the people — or more — I speak to hate what I have to say. That’s bad news for them, I generally think what I have to say is awesome and fun. If you allow your narrative to be imprisoned by someone else’s opinion, you will never have the confidence to say what’s important to you and connect.
Don’t let someone else’s negativity dim your light or hinder your progress. You can’t please everybody, and you shouldn’t aim to. You’re trying to connect, not pander.