How often do you find yourself running into an acquaintance or talking with a colleague and immediately asking, “How are you doing?” My guess is often if not always. It’s just what you say, it’s tried and true, the small talk gold standard.
On the surface, “How are you doing?” is inquisitive and even sounds like a genuine inquiry. However, it’s an unconscious impulse and impersonal.
For a majority of us, small talk is just that: small. It isn’t meaningful or mindful, and while we may dread the inanity, we are at a loss as to how to elevate our casual conversations. Happily, researchers from Harvard University have found some practical tools to help you get started.
Start with a Statement
How about beginning with consciousness and intention— what are yours when you ask the question “how are you?” Do you genuinely care and want to know how they’re doing? If so, great! If not, pause. Kabbalah teaches that genuine kindness is a powerful force but this pure type of kindness is all about consciousness. We have felt what it’s like when someone is “acting” kind versus truly being kind, and it’s not so great. It’s second nature to ask a question to open a conversation, but if your consciousness isn’t behind it, statements are more effective and comfortable.
“It’s such a beautiful day.”
“I love your [insert genuine compliment here.]”
There are ways to begin a conversation that doesn’t start with a question. You won’t be putting the other person on the spot, and your discussion can open on a more authentic note. Researchers suggest practicing this new way of chatting on strangers. Studies show that making conversation with fellow commuters on the subway or people in line at the grocer leaves everyone happier.
Michael Pirson, Ph.D., a psychologist, and expert in humanistic management at the Fordham University Gabelli School of Business, suggests bringing up something you notice on or about the person. This notice of detail helps you focus and become present in the moment. He advises us to use small talk as an opportunity to connect with other people authentically. This could include noticing things like the shoes they’re wearing or books they’re carrying.
Look for ways to start a conversation with a stranger today and practice not opening with a question.
Ask About Something Interesting
There’s nothing wrong with asking questions during small talk. For example, Scott Hoye, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in Chicago, suggests establishing a conversation by asking a question about what brings a person to the event, situation, or place, or asking about what they love and do well.
You can achieve enjoyable small talk through meaningful follow-up questions in a conversation. Not “how are you?” or “what do you do?” but questions that are actual inquiries. Ever found yourself talking just to avoid silence? Instead, try learning more about the person you’re speaking with.
Asking what someone does is okay, as long as you’re interested in knowing more. And the more fascinating the question, the better! If you find out that someone is a surgeon, ask what their most complicated surgery was. If you’re at a wedding and you learned they’ve known the bride since high school, ask about their favorite memory. At the very least, it’s bound to open up more possibilities for conversation.
End the Conversation
For some, the worst part of small talk is the fear of not being able to end the conversation and the resulting feelings of being trapped. Providing a real rationale for having to close the conversation will not only put you at ease but will likely relax your fellow converser as well. Bonus points for using something your partner offered about themselves that interested you.
“I have to go in a few minutes, but I would love to hear more about [what they mentioned.]” Then offering your email.
“I have to go, but I love the advice you offered to me. Can I keep you in the loop about how it goes?”
Being comfortable ending conversations will help you start them more easily and more genuinely.
Connection to one another is paramount to our happiness. Yet, we forget that opportunities for connection happen all the time, and are not exclusively reserved for our spouses, best friends, or children. Each communication is an opportunity to share, to lift someone up, and to create joy. What if every conversation was energizing and insightful? What if every person you interact with had a message just for you? Perhaps your conversations can serve to spark joy for those around you.
The sky is the limit even if the talk is small.
Choose one of the above practices and take it into your day. Notice how you feel interacting with people and notice how it makes them feel. What can you learn from those around you?