I confess I can totally suck at small talk.
Despite my naturally chatty nature, I can feel unsure of what to say in bigger groups.
Or I overthink things. I want to come across as nice but by forcing it I just seem unnatural.
Meanwhile, I have a friend who seems to effortlessly build rapport in an instant. She creates connections wherever she goes.
What am I doing wrong that she does so right?
The truth is that people who are great at making small talk and building rapport have certain habits that I am still trying to master.
Let’s take a look at them…
1) They don’t hog the conversation but they do contribute to it
One of the keys to making small talk is finding the sweet spot between being engaged and not overpowering in the conversation.
Research has shown that when we meet new people we tend to talk a lot about ourselves.
But this instinct we have can be misguided. As the same study also noted that when we focus on ourselves too much it makes us less likable.
Having said that, a conversation is like a dance.
Both parties need to be involved, so staying silent isn’t going to build rapport either.
Your secret weapon to finding that sweet spot lies in our next two habits on the list.
2) They’re attentive to what the other person is saying
It’s so easy to get lost in our own heads when we’re talking to others.
Rather than intently listening, we’re busy telling stories to ourselves and creating a narrative. Or we’re contemplating what we should say next.
Staying truly present and practicing active listening can help us to kick these unhelpful habits.
Rather than finding ourselves distracted, we put our focus on what the other person is saying.
That makes it so much easier to pick up on their points and ask them more questions.
3) They ask thoughtful questions that show they’re listening and interested
Most of us love to talk about ourselves. Studies consistently show this to be true.
It’s been shown to light up certain areas of our brains that are linked to value and motivation when we do.
We can use this information to our advantage to allow people the space to talk more about themselves.
Because research has also found that we like people more who ask plenty of questions.
Even better is when they ask follow-up questions. It shows that they are interested in us and what we have to say.
Essentially, they’re displaying curiosity about us, which always feels nice.
4) They stay curious
Conversation is really just about discovery.
It’s about getting to know more about someone — what they think, how they feel, the way they see the world.
It can help when we reframe small talk and building rapport in this way.
Because it takes the pressure off us when we make it more about the other person.
We can even make it into a game.
Say to yourself, I’m going to try to discover three interesting things about this person.
Then go searching for common ground.
5) They look for the things people have in common
Apparently, we make our minds up about someone new in the first second of meeting them.
Technically, less than a second. In fact, research has suggested it can be as little as one-tenth of a second.
Then we spend the rest of our chat trying to confirm our hunches.
But those who are the best at building rapport reserve their conclusions until they’ve gotten to know somebody.
They choose to see the best in others.
That means they ditch judgment and look for the things that unite us rather than divide us.
6) They are mindful of manners
Let’s not overlook the basics.
Being polite goes a long way when you want to make a good first impression.
That can include:
- Saying please and thank you
- Showing others courtesy
- Being respectful of people’s boundaries and personal space
- Not oversharing or revealing too much too soon
- Not asking prying questions that are non of our business
These sorts of things help us to build rapport.
Of course, in many ways, it relies on knowing what is appropriate and not given the situation.
7) They read the room
Reading the room is admittedly more of an art than a science.
It’s about staying alert to other people’s body language and cues and reacting accordingly.
It helps us approach different settings with the right tone.
For example, when you enter a room how is the energy?
Is it vibrant and buzzing or are people quite low-key and reserved?
This kind of processing often happens in an instant behind the scene in our brains. But we can become more mindful of it to consciously pay more attention.
8) They are open and authentic
There is an undeniable vulnerability in presenting yourself to others — particularly strangers.
We get used to wearing masks to hide behind.
We present versions of ourselves depending on the situation.
But the people who are great at building rapport know how to stay open. And people can sense this on an energetic level.
Let me give you an example.
The friend I mentioned in the intro to this article who excels in building connections once met a new friend waiting in line at an ATM.
I mean, who does that?!
The reason is that she has an incredibly open energy.
The problem is that many of us when we’re nervous or unsure unwittingly close off our energy. And that makes it very challenging to connect with others.
It’s also why ironclad confidence is so important.
9) They build their own self-worth and confidence
So much of how we interact with others is determined by the relationship we have with ourselves.
When we’re uncomfortable with who we are, it tends to shine through.
We feel awkward and that shows.
Taking the time to work on your own self-esteem not only helps you, but it improves your relationships.
It can put you at greater ease in social settings.
Strong confidence is ultimately what helps us dare to show up as who we really are. Which means they don’t feel the need to try so hard to impress.
10) They don’t show off
The art of conversation is often just as much about what people refrain from doing as it is about what they do.
The reality is that we all want to be liked.
Trying too hard comes from the best intentions, but pretty much always backfires on you.
It can tempt us to present a fake image of ourselves. But people can usually spot insincerity a mile away.
It can lead to boasting and bragging, which is always a turn-off.
It can mean we steal too much of the limelight to showcase our assets — and as we’ve already seen, that never does us any favors.
11) They have friendly body language
Putting others at ease means we have to be mindful of the signals we’re giving out.
Many of these happen without us giving it much thought via our body language.
We talked earlier about the energetic signals we give off and how significant they can be.
Our body language can either be a green light or a red light.
Creating open and confident body language commands respect and makes us seem approachable.
It’s things like:
- Having a good posture rather than slouching
- Making eye contact
- Refraining from crossing your arms
- Turning your body to face someone
12) They offer sincere compliments
The most charming people on this planet know the power of a compliment.
Who doesn’t want to hear nice things about themselves?!
But there is a right way and a wrong way to use compliments.
Get it wrong and you could seem more creepy than captivating.
The best compliments are always personal and detail-focused about someone.
Rather than being generic, focus on what makes someone unique.
But the golden rule is always to keep it sincere.
And I’m sure it goes without saying that our compliments should always be appropriate.
13) They remember names and repeat them in conversation
For so many years I really struggled with remembering people’s names.
Then the problem finally dawned on me:
Forgetting wasn’t the issue, failing to listen was.
In the moment of meeting someone new, I was getting lost in my head.
I was busy thinking about all those things we do when we greet someone we don’t yet know — like smiling, looking friendly, and trying to make a good impression.
So when they introduced themselves, I wasn’t actually listening.
It was staggeringly easy to fix once I realized this. I just repeat their name in my head once they say it to me.
Then you can use it in conversation with them too (without overdoing it). We like this because it creates a sense of respect and recognition.
14) They get better through practice
It’s a fact of life that the more we do something the easier it becomes. That goes for making conversation too.
Some people naturally have personalities that make small talk easier for them. But those of us who don’t can still learn to hone our skills.
The more we try, the better we will become.
We learn to play to our strengths. We learn to feel more comfortable and confident in social settings the more familiar it is.
There’s no way around it:
When it comes to making small talk and building rapport we can try to master the theory, but we always need the practice too.