There are few pleasures in life better than a great conversation. When you truly connect with someone, time stands still, space contracts, and you leave whatever event you were at feeling truly alive.
On the other hand, there are few miseries worse than a night of endless small talk. An evening of surreptitious glances at the bar and awkward silences will leave you as drained and depressed as a night of new friendships will leave you exhilarated.
So how do you turn one into the other, moving from small talk drudgery to genuine human connection? You get better at small talk, obviously -- or to be more accurate you learn how to get beyond small talk and into the realm of real conversation. Quora can help.
The question-and-answer site crowdsourced wisdom for a user who wanted to know how to get better at small talk, gathering useful tips for anyone who wants to grow their circle of connections and make their next event way less boring (for all involved).
1. Be more interested.
If you want small talk to be more interesting, the surest route is to be more interested in your conversation partner. "If you are running out of things to say, you are not interested enough in the person you are talking with," insists angel investor Kai Peter Chang in the thread's most popular answer.
"If you don't fundamentally care about the person you are speaking with, that will show," he writes. "So the first fix is your own attitude -- if this is someone you don't care about that you are simply pretending to care about, cut your losses, say 'it's nice to meet you' (yes, lie) and move on."
Writer Ellen Vrana offers some advice: "Imagine a robot saying 'I find you interesting.' Creepy. Words alone don't work. To convey a genuine sense of interest, you have to emote. Lean forward. Make eye contact. Show them that you are listening and care."
2. Ask open-ended questions.
There's absolutely no trick that can make one-word answers exciting, so the only solution is to avoid them. It's all about phrasing, insists art director Craig Weiland. "When you ask someone a small-talky question, be aware of how the question is phrased, and always defer to open-ended structure in your phrasing of questions rather than ones with a simple yes or no answer," he advises.
"For example, 'Are you here with your family?' is a question that can be answered with a simple 'yes' and then you're left holding the bag again... 'Whom are you here with?' invites them to share new information of their own, introducing new subjects of conversation to discuss. If they reply, 'My family,' then you can ask about them, since the other party brought them into this themselves," he elaborates.
"Get out of small talk phase by asking simple questions that require more than one word 'yes/no' answers and pay attention to the responses," writes entrepreneur Daniel Da Vinci, concurring with both points one and two in a single sentence.
3. Leverage your environment (or your wardrobe).
Talking about the weather or the traffic is the classic example of this strategy, but there are other, less painfully cliched ways to use your environment as a conversational springboard. Software engineer Robert Rapplean suggests "commenting on something in your environment... their clothing or jewelry," for example.
It's a technique that's endorsed beyond Quora as well. On HBR recently, professional speaker (and therefore serial event attendee) Dorie Clark suggested a variation on this theme.
"Wearing a distinctive clothing item can be a great icebreaker, whether it's a Madeleine Albright-style signature brooch (which can spark a conversation about the trip to Italy where you bought it), a tie from your alma mater ('you're a Longhorn, too?!?'), or colorful socks," she writes, adding, that "you can also let your conversations be guided by someone else's sartorial choices. Psychologist Richard Wiseman wrote about one man with a unique networking strategy; to avoid habitually gravitating to people just like him, he would pick a color in advance and then make a point of seeking out people wearing that color to initiate conversations and make connections he otherwise wouldn't."
4. Play the student.
Small talk can seem pointless and unstructured -- and therefore totally painful -- but most everyone understands both the how and why of teaching. So one trick is to turn an aimless chat into a learning session.
"If there's a subject you're not familiar with, just be honest with that person and 9 out of 10 times they'll teach you about it," says entrepreneur Michael Wong. "It helps if you show a healthy interest though and put effort into following what's being said."
5. Gamify for your own amusement.
Boredom is usually a two-way street. If your conversation partner is bored, so are you. But the opposite is also true. If you're having a blast, it's likely others will enjoy talking to you. So "gamify for your own amusement," suggests social cause marketer Keirsten Lindholm. Before entering an event, she chooses a topic to find out more about and then uses small talk as an opportunity to complete her self-appointed mission.
"Sometimes I feel like finding out about secret hobbies, favorite volunteer activities or how their industry is changing," she says, adding that "trading ideas is like weaving a story together of playful banter and should probably be regarded as foreplay to possibility. The possibility of more time with one another."
6. Be more interesting.
If the first principle of good conversation is to be genuinely interested, an important corollary is to be more interesting. Small talk is only as small as your reservoir of topics and experiences. Expand your store of anecdotes and opinions and you'll expand your conversational possibilities.
"Get out there and experience new things!" urges respondent Belinda Kwan. "You need to build your repertoire of interesting experiences (not only for the sake of having good conversations, but for the sake of enjoying your life)." Good advice on the topic exists if you're not sure about how to go about becoming more interesting.
7. Give up on lost causes.
Finally, don't forget that you're not required to find every human being on the planet interesting (it would be weird if you did). The best thing you can do sometimes is cut your losses and end a stalled conversation in order to move on and chat with someone with whom you have more rapport.
"There are a few people who are as dull as toast. No, that's an insult to toast. Dull as a toaster that doesn't have toast. You won't connect with everyone. No one does," Vrana reassures readers of the thread.
What's your favorite trick for better conversations?