Ask Lin: The Secret to Small Talk

Drop the sales pitch and try out a better way to engage new people

By Lin Gao
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Dear Lin,
How can I participate in small talk with unfamiliar colleagues or at networking events with strangers? Is there any secret formula for making myself less anxious about it?

We’ve all heard that small talk isn't small because it forges social bonds, which is the basis of any relationship, professional or otherwise. But why are we so anxious about it? Perhaps the reasons we put special emphasis on small talk is because one of the following:

  1. You want some attention, and don't want to be ignored

  2. You want something from others (e.g. business cards, contacts)

  3. You want the other person to find you interesting (or at the very least, not boring)

  4. You want to make a good impression

Now, if there is any secret formula to small talk, it's to keep it simple and basic. Small talk will become quite natural to you, even if you’re an introvert, if you completely forget all those aforementioned reasons. More specifically, if you just let your natural curiosity guide you and stop being so self-centered on what you feel, what you want and what you need, you will know what to ask and what to say.

When you look at the social situation in terms of “I want to get this from you”, there are only two possible consequences: They either accept you, or they reject you, which can often be hurtful to your ego and drive your amygdala (center of emotions) crazy. And this is why you would feel so anxious and fearful when facing social situations that require small talk.

Those with high curiosity quotients (CQ) look at the situation in a different frame of mind, that of, “I want to understand you.” What are the possible results when we think this way? Either I can understand them, or I can’t understand them, which may indicate a lack of skill in asking or listening, but does not carry any negative implication about myself and my self-esteem. I can't be hurt when framing the interaction in this way. You can try the A.R.E. method:

  • Ask neutral, simple “what” questions (instead of yes/no questions)

  • Reveal interest or empathy

  • Encourage: Ask follow-up questions for more information

So you see, small talk is not about talking, it’s about asking. Focus on asking questions and understanding your counterpart. Be curious about them. Make them the center of the interaction. Success means that you have found qualities about the person that you have never realized – qualities that you can connect with. Success does not mean you end up with the phone number or business information, or a sale. Make the other person feel important, and the rest will take care of itself.

Need a formula? Ask, shut up, listen, ask some more, then connect with a common experience or common interest. With this, you will become a small-talk master and a relationship expert!

Lin Gao, an AmCham China Board Member, is a certified leadership coach, trainer and writer with 20 years of management experience in both China and the US. To submit a question for her, contact editor@amchamchina.org.