24 October 2017Last updated

Features | People

Small talk, big deal

Are you stuck when it comes to making small talk at a social affair? Colin Drury speaks to life coaches and gathers eight tips to help make you a star conversationalist

Colin Drury
23 Sep 2016 | 12:00 am
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Diane* still remembers how excruciating the elevator ride was.

She had got in on the ground floor. The managing director entered on the second. Both were heading up to the 45th.

‘It’s a small company,’ the 39-year-old says. ‘But I was quite new to the firm and to Dubai so I wasn’t sure if he knew exactly who I was.

‘We had a few pleasantries – hi, how are you, busy day – that kind of thing. Then there was a pause and I could feel an awkward silence coming on, and I suppose, because he was the boss, I was keen to make a mark. But I really wasn’t sure what to say.’

Flailing slightly, the advertising manager, originally from London, reverted to the classic English default of mentioning the weather. Gosh, she said, it’s very sunny out.

‘He looked sort of confused for a moment,’ she recalls. ‘And then he went, “Well, yes. It’s Dubai. In summer”.’

‘He got his mobile out after that.’

Small-talk disasters: we’ve all had them.

Whether it’s chit-chat with strangers at a party or the preamble before an important work meeting, the art of making pleasantries is not always an easy one to master.

Yet, in Dubai perhaps more than anywhere in the world, it is an absolutely essential skill to possess.

Small talk here is a big deal. Because, for sure, this may be a modern-day land of opportunity – an ever-expanding city where new friends and new career possibilities are always opening up. But to make the most of so many personal and professional chances, one must also be able to make connections.

‘If you want proof, just try cutting a business deal here,’ says Cindy van de Kreke-Freens, personal development coach with Authenticity Coaching and Consultancy in Dubai’s Al Barsha. ‘If you walk into a meeting and try and get straight down to it, you won’t get far. The greater importance is placed on, first and foremost, building a rapport and forging a bond.’

Key to doing that, she adds, is by making a great first impression through positive, enriching small talk.

Danish Sheikh, an independent charisma coach based in Tecom, agrees. ‘I honestly believe those inconsequential chit-chats are the most consequential conversation you ever have – because that’s when you first present yourself to someone and give a feel for who you are.’

All of which, perhaps, leaves one big and slightly daunting question: how do those of us less blessed in the art of patter get good at it?

Read on dear reader. These eight tips, from life coaches, psychologists and business experts, will ensure your small talk makes a big impression…

1. Be prepared

Good chit-chat – like giving a great interview – doesn’t just happen. More often than not, it’s the result of homework and hard yards before the event.

That can range from researching your interlocutor and their interests if you know who they are beforehand to simply reading that day’s newspapers so you have a range of go-to topics if the talk starts to run dry.

‘And have a list of questions to mind,’ advises Cindy. ‘They can be more general for open situations but, if you know you’re meeting someone specific, make an effort to show you know a little something about them or, if you’ve met them before, remember things they have previously told you. So, if I ask one of my coaching clients, “How’s Stefanie doing in college?” he’s thrilled because I’ve not only remembered his daughter’s name but what she’s doing too. Then you see the conversation fly.’

2. Fight the fear

You don’t need to be an extreme introvert to find the idea of small talk kind of unsettling. It’s entirely natural. That’s evolution at work, that is.

‘As humans, we’re hardwired to be wary of strangers,’ says Danish. ‘It’s in our DNA from being cavemen when there was an acute need to be aware of potential threats. Finding chit-chat daunting is just a leftover emotion from that.’

But we’re not cavemen anymore. Unless it’s a seriously eventful office party, no one here is going to attack you with a spear. So we need to override that fear-based instinct.

How? Simply have a word with yourself before the chit-chat begins.

Be rational. Tell yourself there is nothing to be anxious about. Awash your brain with the feel-good hormone dopamine by recalling successful or happy situations. And enter the room with confidence.

3. Remember names

Such a small thing but so oft overlooked.

‘When you’re first introduced to a group of people you often become the centre of attention,’ says Priya Johnston, a UK-based higher education senior HR executive. ‘And the temptation is to want to rush through that, so it passes in a blur and that means you end up not taking in what you’re being told.’

The solution? Slow down, breathe deep, stay present, and repeat each name out loud after it’s told to you.

‘Then drop it into the conversation at an appropriate time,’ says Danish. ‘Firstly, it shows a personal touch that’s appreciated. Secondly, there’s a school of psychological thought that everyone’s favourite word is their own name. So if you use it occasionally, they associate that feel-good feeling with you.’

4. Seek out shared realities

Sounds complicated? It’s not. It simply means we should find common ground with our conversational partner.

Not always easy when you’re in a roomful of strangers, perhaps. But certainly not impossible either, says Bernardo Carducci, director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast in the US. ‘If you comment on the good music or the interesting floral arrangements or how long a line for food is, and the other person agrees, that means they’re willing to talk to you.’

Danish agrees. ‘These may sound like banal topics but it’s about making that first connection in a risk-free way. Once that’s established, you can move the conversation on.’

Another golden starter here: how do you know the host?

5. Be interested and listen up

Don’t overdo the questions, of course. ‘You’re not a police officer,’ says Cindy.

But asking about the other – and, more importantly, showing genuine interest in the answer – is key.

‘People often associate great small talk with always saying something impressive,’ says Richard Reid, a Harley Street-based psychotherapist who specialises in confidence and emotional intelligence training. ‘In fact, quite often the opposite is true: the people who really make friends and connections are those who actively listen when the other person speaks.’

6. Offer something

Active listening may be key. But that’s not to say we shouldn’t say something too. One-way conversations are no fun. Both parties need to pull some weight.

‘Always respond to questions – even if they’re small or quite closed – with an answer that’s more than five words,’ says Cindy. ‘The more you offer in your answer, the more it comes across like you respect the other person’s question – and this builds trust and rapport.’

Debra Fine, author of the 2002 book The Fine Art of Small Talk, agrees. Shortened answers, she says, puts pressure on the other person to scramble for a new subject.

‘Embellish your response,’ she advises. ‘If someone asks what you’ve been up to, say, “We took the kids to Italy this year”. Now they know that you have kids and have been to Italy.’

7. Remember body language

Hands, eyes, posture: these are all key in conveying interest – and, therefore, likeability – when chit-chatting. ‘Making eye contact and leaning into the conversation shows a real desire to hear every word,’ says Cindy. ‘It makes you appear curious and that’s intoxicating for the other person.’

Other advice? Nod plenty of affirmations. Open your body shape so you don’t appear defensive or closed. And use hands to emphasise your own points when speaking.

But be aware of others’ body language too. ‘If a person turns away, their eyes wander or they start to fidget, it could mean they feel uncomfortable about the subject – or are disinterested,’ says Cindy. ‘Pick up on that and talk about something else or, if you feel the distance is undeserved, politely disengage.’

8. Politely disengage

Sometimes a breakdown in small talk can be rescued.

If a pause has closed a subject, don’t be afraid to ‘throw something new out there,’ says Bernardo. ‘And don’t worry about making the transition smooth.’

That said, sometimes small talk can run its course – and then it’s time to move on. Do so politely.

One tip, according to Debra, is make use of the phrase, ‘I need’. ‘I need to get some food; I haven’t eaten all day,’ she says. ‘I need to talk to a client over there. I need to meet the speaker.’

These two words subliminally suggest, apparently, that you don’t want to leave but must anyway. But, for lasting connections, try not to go without showing the conversation has touched you.

‘I always refer to something that’s been said,’ says Priya. ‘So, if someone has recommended a restaurant while we’ve been speaking, I might ask them to tell me the name again so I can check it out. It just registers with your partner that, yes, thank you, I’ve enjoyed this conversation and am taking something from it. That’s a great way, I think, to make a good lasting impression.’

*Name changed

Colin Drury

Colin Drury