Small talk is a source of anxiety for many English language learners. Increase your confidence by learning how to direct and actively participate in the conversation. Here are three tips on how to do that.
Tip #1 - How do you start small talk? Ask a question. Asking a question is the easiest way to start a conversation with someone. Ask a combination of open-ended and closed-ended questions.
Open-ended questions result in long, thought-provoking responses.
What do you think about the changes the CEO announced last week?
Why did you decide to start working out?
How did you get into writing novels?
Tell me why you decided to move to Japan.
Describe what it was like to hike through New Zealand.
Closed ended questions produce one-word responses, most often yes or no, or short, specific responses. Closed ended questions generally start with versions of the verbs/modal verbs such as be, have, do, will, can, should, and must.
Is it cold where you live?
Can you speak Italian?
Have you ever been to China?
Do you like Indian food?
Should we be in this room?
Must you tap your fingers on the desk like that?
You can also start closed ended questions with 'who', 'which' or 'when.'
Who did you go to the movies with last night?
When did you start taking dance lessons?
Which airport did you fly into last night?
Why is this important? It's important because asking a series of closed-ended questions is a quick way to shorten the life of a conversation. People tend to bore easily in this situation. People become more engaged when they are given the opportunity to express their thoughts and points of view to an active listener.
Tip #2 - Be an active listener. This means once you ask a question, listen to the response and respond to what the person is saying. Don't spend this time trying to form your next question in your mind. Your next question could be about something the person just said. Active listening also involves making eye contact, laughing where appropriate, and smiling. Make sure your facial expression matches what the other person is saying. If they're being funny, smile. If they're talking about a serious matter, show a serious facial expression. This demonstrates to the speaker that you're paying attention to what they're saying.
Tip #3 - Ask follow-up questions. This is another aspect of small talk that shows you're listening. Ask a question that relates to something they just said. If someone tells you they love riding horses, your next question should be about horses. For example, when did you start riding horses? How long have you been riding horses? Have you ever competed in horseback riding? Where do you ride? What kind of horse?
One final tip, when making small talk, be an active participant. Try not to be the one who only answers questions or the one who only asks questions. You are not being interviewed for a job and you are not conducting an interview for a job. You're getting to know someone, so balance your conversation between giving responses and asking questions. Most importantly, relax and enjoy the moment.