The Impossible Art of Small Talk

More terrifying than death (according to studies which place public speaking at the top of the list of global anxieties [1]), public speaking triggers feelings of anxiety in up to 75% of the population [2]. The fear of public speaking is widely accepted and almost assumed, but conversational anxiety – an aspect of social anxiety which manifests as a  fear of engaging in a conversational exchange – is often overlooked, and yet affects most of us to some extent on a daily basis. During lockdown, we were spared the challenge/ torture of small-talk, but as Australia is opening up, questions about the weather await. When conversation can be such an enriching experience, it’s heartbreaking that so often we find ourselves struggling through, grasping for conversation starters and desperately looking for an opportunity to leave for the bathroom/ grab a drink/ jump out of the nearest window. We’ve done some digging for tips on how to elevate your small talk and shed the fear of the water cooler conversation.


1. Where to start

We’re sadly mistaken if we think asking someone how they are or what they do is a good place to start. Token questions like that, unless asked with genuine interest (perhaps switching the question to “how have you felt health-wise during lockdown” or “how have you found working from home”) can seem insincere, and often the answers we give are stock responses, not engaging either us or the person we’re speaking to. If you don’t have a burning question you’re really eager to get stuck into, communications expert Dr. Carol Fleming recommends choosing an anchor point – a mutually shared reality which you can observe and discuss. In her book The Serious Art Of Small Talk, Dr Fleming explains how these anchor points can be lighthearted and can lay the groundwork for a segue into a more in-depth conversation.


2. The second stage

After laying the foundations with a mutually observable anchor point, Dr Fleming recommends establishing trust and a sense of relatability by revealing something about yourself which is related to the first topic. This kind of conversation is lighthearted but genuine, easy but intimate. Revealing something about yourself (a past experience, fear, ambition or assessment) alludes to and encourages a sense of trust which encourages the person you’re speaking with to open up themselves.


3. Active listening

It may seem like it goes without saying, but genuinely listening is an art that, when mastered, can completely elevate a conversation. Tune in to the cues people drop, and rather than repeating questions back to them, ask a question about something they alluded to if you suspect it might lead to an interesting field of discussion. It’s true that people love talking about themselves, but most of us are tired of telling people where we grew up and how many siblings we had: we want to discuss what we learnt from our last relationship, and how we’re feeling about the future of travel. Coming up with these lines of enquiry will occur naturally when you listen with genuine interest to the person you’re talking to, and showing interest in a person will increase their sense of confidence and encourage them to open up more and enter more fully into the conversation. It’s also important to strike a balance between questioning and commenting – constantly asking questions can seem like an interrogation, so contribute your own thoughts and reflections, allowing room for the person you’re talking with to expand, elaborate and enquire.


4. Everyone is an expert on something

Genuine interest is impossible to feign, so in order to create the chemistry that comes from mutual intrigue, it’s important to enter into a conversation with the expectation that the person you’re speaking with has something to teach you. Regardless of the topic, if we create space for a person to present their personal insight, opinion or experience, we’ll go away having learned something new.


5. Practice makes better (and perfect is impossible)

Making small talk is a skill we can develop only through practice, so look at every conversational challenge as a stepping stone towards an easier ride in the future. Having said that, the trajectory isn’t a perfect curve: incredible conversational chemistry can pop up out of nowhere, and the next day we can find ourselves desperately searching for subject matter. Relax in the knowledge that conversations are a two-way exchange, and although practising will make you more confident, you can’t ultimately control the success of a conversation unless you’re having it with yourself.

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