How to make successful small talk during the party season

For some, small talk is akin to torture. Like listening to nails on a chalkboard, or hearing the word "moist", they recoil at the thought of having to politely engage in meaningless nothings. Evidence seems to support this pet peeve, with research from 2010 discovering a link between small talk and unhappiness.

But a new study challenges that belief. Researchers, who published their findings in the July 2018 issue of Psychological Science, say that engaging in small talk has no bearing on happiness levels.

It’s not selfish to steer the conversation in the direction of your interests. Most people are desperate for the other person to take the lead.Credit:Stocksy

This makes sense to Lana Hall, principal psychologist at therapy centre Sage & Sound. While most people believe that small talk is pointless, she says when it's done "well" it can be a stepping stone to more meaningful interactions.

Life coach Kate Cashman agrees. Instead of shuddering at the thought of such banter, she says these conversations can be a great way to meet new people and form lasting connections. Here's how to do it.

Ask open-ended questions

We've all been there. You're at a cocktail party and you ask a fellow guest how they know the host, or what they do for a living. The conversation sputters along before grinding to a halt. You then nod and smile, racking your brain for topics.

You can avoid all that by asking open-ended questions, says Hall. Instead of asking someone what they do, ask how they got into their line of work. Similarly, don't simply ask how their day was. Rather, prompt them to tell you the most interesting part of their day.

Lead the conversation

Instead of hoping to stumble across a topic that interests both of you, Hall recommends leading the other person towards areas you would like to discuss such as your hobbies, a recent film you saw, or a book you're dying to read. It's not selfish to steer the conversation in the direction of your interests, Hall says, explaining that most people are desperate for the other person to take the lead.

Besides, if the topic excites you, you'll infuse the conversation with the kind of enthusiasm so often absent in such transitory situations.

Actively listen

We all know the key to being a good conversationalist is being a great listener, so put your listening skills to use when chatting, says Cashman.

"When you ask a question of someone, be genuinely interested and engaged in hearing their answer." Hall then suggests you take it a step further by following their lead and adding your own thoughts on the topic, before throwing another open-ended question their way.

Body language

It's not just about what you say; it's also how your body talks. If your eyes dart around the room as you speak, the person you're talking to will feel uncomfortable. That's why body language is pivotal, says Cashman. "Giving someone space to talk to you – a kind smile or just giving them your full attention – can change the quality of the conversation."

In fact, she says the way you make a person feel through your use of body language will probably linger in their minds longer than the actual topics you discuss.

Aim for connection

If small talk is full of nothing but hot air, it's understandable why we often walk away feeling hollow. Instead of skimming the surface, Cashman says we should aim to make true connections and discuss topics we have some investment in.

The best way to do this, says Hall, is to share stories. Ask those open-ended questions – about a person's job, family, travel aspirations, hobbies and so on. Then share your own stories and encourage your conversation companion to "go a bit deeper". When those stories flow, you've struck conversational gold and reached the nirvana of small talk. On other words, elevating it from meaningless banter to something more worthy.

This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale December 9.

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