Small Talk Not Needed


Many of us–introverts and extroverts alike–have trouble meeting and engaging new people at networking events, conferences, and meetings. We feel out of place, exposed, and awkward. Yuck.

Luckily, we can have the benefits of meeting new people (including ideas, opportunities, potential partnerships and friendships) without the discomfort. Instead of small talk (“How about those Jays?”), try some of these approaches.

Turn the camera. When you are feeling uncomfortable, notice where you place your attention: on you. The more you focus on you in these situations, the worse you will feel and the less time and energy you will have for the conversation. Turn the camera toward them: tell yourself that your job is to focus on the other person (see the ‘curiosity’ and ‘questions’ items below).

Pretend. Did you ever notice that you have much less trouble at these events when you have an official role? At the next event you attend–without trying to replace the real host(s)–pretend that you are the host. Ask yourself, “What would the host say to this person? How would she say it?”

Give a gift.  What are the other person’s stories? What holds their attention these days? What do they care about?  What challenges/projects do they face? We give them a great gift when we listen. And we give ourselves the gift of a much more enjoyable time.

They are just as terrified. Remember that most people you meet at these events are in the same boat: they, too, feel out of place, exposed, or awkward. Some may not. Some may have good tactics to cover their discomfort. When you recognize this mutual fear, you will relax. You will open a new door to connection and compassion. And you will have successfully turned the camera.

Flex. We all have preferred ways of communicating. We notice it mostly in our pace of speech, tone of speech, and body language. Rather than defending against another person’s style, flex to it. Spend a few seconds at the start of a conversation matching their pace, tone, and body language. Even a little flexing like this has an odd way of calming us all now.

Go with curiosity. One way to turn the camera away from yourself and toward the other person is to be curious. “I wonder what they will say? What makes this person tick? What do they think is important?” Curious is much easier than defended.

A few questions. Having ready a few open-ended questions can take out much of the nervousness of these conversations. Try questions like, “What is your connection to this event?” “Outside of your work, where do you enjoy spending your time?” and “What projects at home or work have you finished most recently?”

Graceful exits. We sometimes fear getting trapped speaking with certain meeting attendees. We don’t want to be rude and we really want to get away. Here are two options. Option 1) Go for a firm and friendly conversation close. With respect, interject. Thank them for their time, ask to exchange business cards (you did bring your business cards, right?), ask if it would be okay to follow up with them sometime via email or LinkedIn, then say goodbye. Option 2) Adding on. Ask if you may add someone to the conversation. If yes, then make an introduction to someone you know. Get the new conversation started amongst the three of you. Decide then whether you’d like to stay or find another conversation. Watch carefully your intent here. If you use these as just a tactics to get away, you can do damage. You can gracefully leave a conversation by first committing to be kind (really, really) then exiting.

Breathe. When we are nervous, we forget to breathe well. Catch yourself if you are nervous during an event. Quietly and discreetly take in and let out three long, slow breaths. Ahhhh.

These approaches will help you give and get the benefits of connecting with others at events. And without the need to talk about the weather.


In your corner,



Today’s photo credit: Joanne Wan cc

4 thoughts on “Small Talk Not Needed

    1. You’re welcome. I should also say that this is a starter list of approaches. As you proceed, you’ll pick up others and develop your own.

  1. Thanks Mike. Gread ideas. I have found that focusing on others and listening to their stories work well for me as well as the other person. I enjoy the stories and able to connect. The one thing I have found is that if I have not asked the right questions, it makes for an awkward silence.

    1. Hi Sandra,

      Yes, that happens to me, too. My tactics here are 1) being okay with some silence…we do ourselves more trouble when we worry about the lack of talk, 2) having several general questions available to ask, and 3) naming the situation. Naming means saying out loud what’s happening with a light spirit. “I think I’ve asked you an unimportant question.” I use naming with caution. It has to be light hearted otherwise it will seem as if you are accusing yourself or the other person. It also has to point to the core of the situation (e.g. a dead end line of questioning) not the resulting symptoms (e.g. awkward silence). If I point the symptoms, we’ll only focus there and we won’t have much luck. If I point out the core problem, then we can do something together about it.


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