I Hear It’s Supposed to Rain Tomorrow

If I had to make a life list of the things I most despise, making small talk would fall just below people leaving uneaten desserts at restaurants and glitter (it never goes away).

Consider the conversation required in an elevator. Whether it’s a stranger or my best friend, the second those doors shut and I have to decide whether to look directly at them or speak to them through their reflection in the steel, it’s a ride straight up to Awkward Town.

Let’s be honest—making small talk sucks. Unless you’re a salesman or lack the appropriate social filters, there’s nothing enjoyable about commenting on the weather or asking someone if they know whether or not more bacon-wrapped scallops are coming out.

But sometimes these moments are unavoidable. If you’re at a work conference or networking event, those dreaded cocktail hours are chock-full of opportunities to converse with others. If you have to engage in small talk, you may as well make the most of it.

According to a Fast Company blog by Drake Baer, here’s how:

1. Pay attention.

Instead of letting your mind wander and thinking about what you want to eat for dinner that night, focus on who is in front of you, if only for a minute or two.

Easier said than done, especially once you spot a fresh tray of beef wellington bites in your periphery.

2. Let the other person sell themselves.

People are just as afraid of you as you are of them—unless of course you’re a convicted felon, in which case, you’re probably the more frightening of the two. Let them dominate the conversation and show themselves to be vulnerable. Show interest in what’s up in their life, and then give them your story.

Often, that person will identify a need for your services and turn into a business lead. Or they’ll break down while discussing the most painful aspects of their recent divorce, and you’ll never get a word in edgewise. It’s a toss-up.

3. Summarize their viewpoint.

By doing this, you create trust. You have validated their viewpoint. Even better: this allows you to then disagree with them in a more gracious manner.

“In summary, your husband left you for your daughter’s Girl Scout leader.”

4. Make eye contact, but not too much.

You can lose that trustworthiness by not making enough eye contact. For one-on-one conversations, hold eye contact for seven to 10 seconds. If you’re in a group, shorten that to three to five seconds.

Please, please don’t do anything longer. It’s the worst.

5. Do your homework, without being creepy.

Having a sense of who might be in the “crowd” can help, and you can find out a bit more about them ahead of time. 

If you start liking their six-year-old honeymoon pictures on Facebook, you’ve crossed the line.

6. Laugh it off.

Take any opportunity to joke around or personalize a conversation—even from the get-go. This way, any barriers that might be up will be taken down.

Have you heard the one about the priest and the rabbi?

For more, check out Management Insider in the October issue of units Magazine, which mails Oct. 10.