By Syed Balkhi, founder of WPBeginner

In business, it’s required that you speak to people you’ve never met before. If anything, it’s an integral part of any business that requires you to step out of your comfort zone. Small talk is all about short, casual, light conversation. More often than not, it happens with someone you’ve never met or don’t know that well, which is exactly why so many people fear it.

Unfortunately, if you’re someone who feels they’re bad at small talk, it’s inevitable you’ll have to navigate your way through the pain eventually. According to the Harvard Business Review, your ability to excel in the workplace highly depends on how well you’re able to create and maintain positive relationships with professionals through small talk. It’s a skill you need if you’re looking to continue moving up the ladder.

Here are a few ways to get started.

Listen, listen, listen.

If you haven’t yet heard of the 70/30 rule of communication, now is as good a time as any. Listen 70 percent of the time and speak 30 for a balanced conversation.

If you’re not a huge talker, the good news is that most people love to talk about themselves. By asking a few open-ended questions, you give the other person the reins to lead the conversation and take it in whatever direction they choose. It also makes you come off as considerate, well-mannered and, well, a good listener.

Think about how good it feels when a friend genuinely asks to hear about how you’re doing or what you’re interested in. Treat the other person as a friend when engaging in small talk to take your mind off the fact that they’re not someone you know well. Show enthusiasm as they answer your questions and show that you’re actively engaged so they feel connected to you.

Pay attention to body language.

Nothing is a dead giveaway like someone’s body language. Their tongue could say one thing while their body tells their secrets for them.

If you’re going to steer small talk in the direction you want, you have to be able to read body language. That is, be able to read how they’re feeling without them explicitly telling you. Often times, people don’t want to admit when they’re feeling uncomfortable or awkward, especially in a professional setting, so knowing what signs to look for will come in handy.

Try to gauge what the other person is feeling at all times throughout your conversation. Focus on nonverbal cues, which can include:

  • Eye contact
  • Facial expression
  • Gestures
  • Posture
  • Tone and pitch of voice
  • Proxemics (how near or far they are from you)
  • Body movement

If at any point you feel that the conversation is getting dull or uncomfortable, try changing the subject to see if that sparks their interest and gets them talking. Consistently pay attention to how they move to understand how they’re feeling and act accordingly.

Think of questions beforehand.

If you have no clue you’re expected to make small talk sometime soon, you’ll end up going into the situation filled with nerves, and discomfort. You want your conversations -- especially business-related ones -- to have a positive impact on you and your ventures. The best way not to get frustrated in a small-talk scenario is to prepare questions beforehand.

How are you supposed to know what to ask before you’ve met the other person or people? If you know it’ll be in a business setting, like a conference for example, this makes it easier to brainstorm. You can center your questions around business. What would you like to know more about? Is there anyone you’d love to speak with one on one to gain insight on an idea you have? Do you wish to know how someone accomplished a certain goal of theirs that’s also on your list?

Just like it helps to prepare before an exam, thinking about questions prior to conversing will help you a thousand times over. If you feel there’s an awkward pause or the conversation’s at a lull, you can think back to your question archives and decide what would be a good thing to ask to get both of your brain juices flowing.

Over to you.

To some, making small talk seems like the most daunting task in the world. The thought of having a conversation with strangers is the last thing you want to do. But in business, you have to figure out ways to deal with it. By paying attention to the other person’s nonverbal cues, asking questions that spark their interest and actively listening, you’re already on a better path to making small talk less painful and more beneficial.

Syed Balkhi is the founder of WPBeginner, the largest free WordPress resource site that helps small businesses start their website.

Published on: Feb 21, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.