We all dislike small talk, but it does have a role. Getting to know someone happens in a sequential manner, and we cannot skip steps if we want to go deeper. It can be said that there are four stages to an interaction, and small talk is the first, followed by fact disclosure, then opinion disclosure, then emotion disclosure. The sequence can be played with, but understanding small talk’s role is important.
#1 Speak Like Friends
The first way to set the tone is to speak like friends: topic-wise, tone-wise, and even privacy-wise. People will go along with the tone you set as long as you aren’t outright offensive. A powerful aspect of this is showing emotion as friends do, instead of filtering yourself and putting up a wall for the literal purpose of keeping people insulated at a distance. And stop being so darned literal and serious. A conversation does not have to be about sharing facts, and some comments can be used solely for the purpose of seeing how the other person will react.
#2 Search For Similarities
Another aspect of setting the right tone is to search for similarities and also allow the opportunity to create them. When people observe similarity, they instantly open up and embrace it because it is a reflection of themselves. There are only good assumptions and connotations, so we should actively seek them out. You can do this by digging more deeply into people’s lives and asking questions to find seemingly unrelated similarities, divulging more information yourself, and also mirroring them physically. Also, don’t discount the value of mutual dislike—it’s not negative to talk about negative things, per se.
Finally, even if you follow these steps, sometimes people either aren’t willing to engage or not good at opening up themselves. You can blast past this by using forms of elicitation, in which you put forth a topic or question in a way that a person will feel compelled to engage or elaborate. These take the form of prompting the person to reply to your recognition, encouraging mutual complaining, assisting your naiveté, and correcting your incorrect assumption or information
#3 Exchange Stories
Captivating people usually refers to telling a story that leaves them listening like children (in a good way). Storytelling is a big topic that is often made overly complex, but there are many ways of creating this feeling in small, everyday ways. To captivate others is no easy feat, but the material and ability lies within all of us. We just have to know where it is and how to access it.
The 1:1:1 method of storytelling is to simplify it as much as possible. The impact of a story won’t necessarily be stronger if it is ten sentences versus two sentences. Therefore, the 1:1:1: method focuses on the discussion and reaction that occurs after a story. A story can be composed solely of (1) one action, (2) one emotion to be evoked, and (3) a one-sentence summary. Don’t get lost rambling, and also make sure your listener feels that they are fully participating in the conversation.
#4 Pay Compliments
The most obvious way to have people lower their guards is to pay them compliments early and often. Compliments are positive in general, but there are specific compliments that really impact the recipients. You should seek to compliment people on things they have made a conscious choice about and that reflect their thinking process. This gives them validation in a way that complimenting them on their eyes simply doesn’t. These types of compliments subtly tell others that you agree with them on deep levels, and they can feel great that they have made a correct set of decisions.
#5 Ask Better Questions
Of course, the tried and true way of directly getting deeper with people is to ask better questions. The simple truth is that most questions we use are surface level, and thus will only return surface-level responses. Here are a few guidelines for more piercing questions that will create more fertile ground for real substance:
- ask open-ended questions (don’t ask for facts, ask for the analysis and reaction associated with the facts)
- go beyond assumptions (what are you missing in your own analysis?)
- get all sides of the story (the more perspectives the better)
- use follow-up questions (don’t interject your own thoughts) and
- encourage people to come up with their own insights (so how did that change your opinion on things?)
#6 Lend Them An Ear
Sometimes people will lower their guards without even intending to if they find a kind ear that’s willing to listen intently and let them voice their inner thoughts. Listening is a skill that should be taught from childhood, but it’s not, so we are left with all sorts of ineffective listening habits. We are all also naturally self-absorbed, which highlights the importance of listening as a skill to make others feel good about an interaction. While there are various methods to listen better, having a listening mindset is by far the most important part: it’s not about you, focus on the other person, and if they said something, there’s a reason—explore that.