I understand its purpose; small talk is how we bridge personal distance and build relationships by finding common interests (or intriguing opposites). It is key to networking. It is usually focused on positive or neutral topics and helps us decide how much closer (or not) to bring someone into our circles. It requires very little vulnerability and requires no ongoing commitment should the budding relationship not go any further.
Knowing all that doesn't make it easier to do.
No one wants to appear boring /dull/ zoned out. Yet, when we don't know someone, how are we to have an engaging conversation without having an established connection or topic?
I'm as guilty as anyone about talking about the weather. Searching for common ground in the first two minutes (sometimes the only two minutes) of conversation is tough.
Here's a few ways that I try to connect:
- pay a compliment about something that matters to me (shoes! or a great comment or the speaker or an idea raised)
- ask a question for which the answer matters to me (where did you get those shoes? or "Did I hear correctly when X was said?")
- if I'm stuck on the weather, make it more personal to solicit an opinion or commiserate (How many of your team couldn't make it in today? Can you believe people were out in loafers and no socks?)
- talk about the food (if there is any) ... I love figuring out what's in things or what might complement the dish and that usually raises spirited debate and helps me find interesting folks (or restaurant recommendations)
- play hot potato and hope the new addition kick-starts a good topic
- acknowledge the search for a topic and ask "what do you think is the hot topic in this room?"
Any other ideas?