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Mental Health

Expert Advice: How Can I Be Better at Small Talk?

Tips to help you deepen your conversations.

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Nervous about meeting new people or chatting with relatives at an upcoming New Year’s Eve celebration? Whether you’re having a more intimate one-on-one talk or are mingling with strangers at a big party, small talk can feel intimidating, especially if you’re introverted or suffer from social anxiety. To help, try these tips from our experts; you’ll get better at small talk and ultimately enjoy deeper conversations.

Meet our expert panel

  • Patti Wood, MA, author of Snap: Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language & Charisma, is a body language and communication expert.
  • Jen Hatmaker, author, most recently, of Feed These People, and host of the For the Love podcast, leads an online community where she reaches millions each week.
  • Debra Fine, author of The Fine Art of Small Talk, is a keynote speaker and trainer to hundreds of audiences around the world. Visit her at DebraFine.com.

Search for community.

Tapping in to your inquisitive nature helps quell social worry, says expert Patti Wood. “Tell yourself, ‘I’m going to learn something interesting tonight.’” Once you’ve primed your mind with positivity, use the easiest conversation opener: a genuine compliment. “You might say, ‘I like your shoes,’ or if music is playing, ‘Do you like this song? I do too.’ Finding commonality makes us feel calmer and amenable to a deeper conversation.

Ask these questions.

Foster meaningful connections by asking people what they’re “consuming,” be it a book, podcast or TV show, says expert Jen Hatmaker. “You might ask, ‘What can you just not get enough of lately?’” To spark even more nuanced discussions, she suggests focusing on the “secret stash of dreams” we all share, by asking questions that get to the heart of people’s aspirations, like, “If the sky were the limit, what would you love to do?” This creates more depth.

End on a high note.

To close a conversation grace-fully, ask for their “high note,” says expert Debra Fine. “If they were talking about a recent trip, you could say, ‘Before I go, tell me the number-one highlight of your vacation?’ Or if they were chatting about a big project: ‘Before I go, tell me what’s the number-one ingredient of a successful presentation.’” This ensures they remember you and feel great about themselves.

Reflect their emotions.

When we’re listening to someone, we often have an impulse to relay similar situations we’ve been in, observes Wood. “For example, I have a friend, who instead of acknowledging my difficult situation, will say, ‘I had a hard day too.’” A better way to show interest is to respond to their emotions, rather than trying to compare challenges. Wood suggests saying, “That sounds so hard,” or “That must have brought you so much joy.” Simply reflecting their feelings makes people feel seen.

Signal your engagement.

To signal you’re engaged, Fine suggests asking things like, “What happened next?” or “How did you come up withthat idea?” Encouraging people to talk about themselves shows you’re a good listener and helps you both stay engaged in the discussion.

Leave a great impression.

Sprinkle your chat with what Hatmaker calls “verbal affirmations.” “Lean in, make eye contact and show you’re tuned in by nodding and saying things like, ‘I see that,’ or ‘Yeah, I get that.’ This signals you’re with them.” Another key yet underrated part of listening is letting others know how much you enjoyed talking to them. “I might say, ‘I’m so glad I sat next to you; I can’t wait to talk to you again.’ Everyone wants to hear that. Being a curious human being restores a little bit of connection in a disconnected world.”

A version of this article originally appeared in our print magazine, Woman’s World.

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