How to Avoid Small Talk and Have a Real Conversation

“How are you?”... the most common greeting. When we hear it, it’s as though we switch into a “previously taped” dialog where we bounce our way through the standard pleasantries, literally without a thought.

For many people, it’s impossible to imagine a conversation with a stranger without small talk. These are the friendly and safe everyday topics we tend to fall back on if we’re feeling insecure about our conversation skills or the possibility of awkward silence.

While small talk may seem safe, in practice it does more harm than good. What mostly follows small talk is an absence of meaningful communication and a lost opportunity. You may have managed to navigate the interaction without any uncomfortable moments, but you also missed out on any chance of a real connection.

But fear not! Getting away from the same old automatic questions and sparking more authentic connections might be easier than you think. To avoid the empty topics and questions such as the weather, traffic, and the infamous “How are you,” here’s what you should do:

Tips for Starting a Conversation

1) Be aware and observant. Moving beyond the same old small talk is largely about kick starting the conversation with a more meaningful topic. One of the simplest and most effective ways to do this is using your powers of observation. What do you notice about the way the person presents him or herself, or about your surroundings, that could help you ask a better question?

Gary Burnison, CEO of the organizational consulting firm Korn Ferry, shares a great example of this:

“Let’s say you’re talking to the CEO of a large, iconic company who is about to retire, and you noticed a row of empty boxes along the wall of the CEO’s office. You might start with the question, ‘How hard is it for you to leave this job?’ This will lead to a much deeper and more emotionally revealing discussion, and it never would’ve happened had you not noticed those boxes.”

Similarly, you might observe something about the person’s outfit, belongings, etc. that is distinctive and worth a compliment: “I love those glasses...where did you get them?” That simple question could lead to a conversation about their style preferences, their financial values, or a host of other tidbits that allow you to build the conversation from there.

2) Share the News. Even when a conversation kicks off with the same old question of “how are you?” or similar, it doesn’t mean you have to give the same old answer. Another powerful way to break out of the “small talk death spiral” is to give a more authentic answer that breaks out of the expected norm. You might answer “I’m doing great, we are getting ready to head out of town on a big trip,” or, “This has been a really tough week at work but I’m doing okay, thanks.”

By sharing a just a snippet of what’s really going on with you, you accomplish two things. First, you give the other person permission to be real in their response as well, and who knows what you’ll learn! And second, you give them a clue for how to move the conversation beyond pleasantries. Your goal is to share a little and to do it authentically, without oversharing.

Keep It Rolling!

Once you get the ball rolling in a new conversation, you now have an opportunity to really stand out as someone memorable and likable.

Mastering these skills can make a big difference in your results. In fact, a Harvard study found that people with stronger conversational skills were found to be more likable. The most powerful predictor of your likability in conversation? The degree to which you ask follow-up questions.

So once the conversation is flowing with your conversation partner, the simple trick is to take the time to go deeper with follow-up questions, rather than bouncing from one subject to another. You will demonstrate that you are really listening and that you are interested enough to ask the next question.

Turning Conversations into Connections

With your newfound ability to spark in-depth conversations, it’s likely that a lot of details will emerge and be important for future communications, whether you realize it at the time it or not. You’ll need to develop a simple system to help you remember a few key details from your conversation to help you when it’s time to follow up or reconnect.

That’s where we come in! Trying out our Contact Mapping app is easy – you can join free for a month, get to know its features and see how it can impact your life!