The three most useless words in the world of communication are "How are you?" The person asking doesn't really want to know, and the person responding doesn't tell the truth. It's just a boring question.
So, some Harvard researchers have studied better openers for meaningful exchanges that can lead to follow-up questions, which is the key factor in successful small talks.
Here are seven tactics to having a good conversation:
1. Use the ACT trick to start a connection
Start with a question that will build up to a conversation that meets the ACT criteria:
A - There's authenticity
C - There's a connection
T - There's a topic that will give them a taste of who you are
Some of those questions might be:
"What's your current state of mind?"
"What are you looking forward to this week?"
"You remind me of a celebrity, but I can't remember which one — who's someone you relate to?"
2. Move beyond the "hourly update"
The fallback for a lot of people is like the newscast "hourly update" — traffic, sports, weather and so on.
This can work only if there is a genuine interest of yours and your boss or colleagues But try to move beyond those cliché topics to things that are more important and personal to you.
3. Be in the moment and observe your surroundings
Open your eyes before you open your mouth. Find something to focus on in your surroundings, like the piece of art on the wall, a quirky gadget or family picture on their desk, a race car helmet, scattered coins from various countries and so on. There's bound to be something that will spark small talk and help lead the conversation into unique follow-up questions.
Let's say you're talking to the CEO of a large, iconic company who is about to retire, and you noticed a row of empty boxes along the wall of the CEO's office. You might start with the question, "How hard is it for you to leave this job?" This will lead to a much deeper and more emotionally revealing discussion, and it never would've happened had you not noticed those boxes.
4. Share some news (that actually happened)
If you have "news," share it: "I adopted a pet over the weekend" or "My 6-year-old rode a bike for the first time yesterday!" Believe it or not, most people actually do want to know more about others, especially if they both work at the same company.
If you're new to a company and leading a team, for example, start your first meeting by going around the room and asking each person to say one interesting thing that recently happened in their lives. As a result of that momentary sharing, you've allowed everyone to feel more personally and genuinely connected with each other.
The objective is to be genuine and not simply make something up. Otherwise, you run the risk of not knowing how to answer follow-up questions about something you have little or no experience with.
5. Talk early
Whether you're meeting in person or dialling in for a conference call, talk early.
If you wait, two things will probably happen: One, someone else will make the comment you wanted to make and, two, your more talkative colleagues will take over with their own follow-up questions. You'll get lost in the cross-talk and miss your chance.
6. It's not just what you say
No matter what or how much you say, your tone of voice, facial expression and eye contact will broadcast so much more.
In-person, look at the other person when you speak, not at the conference table or the wall. On the phone, smile — it will make your voice sound warmer. It's not just what you say, but how you say it, that will help others connect with you.
7. Make the pivot
This is where small talk goes to the next level, as you segue from talking about something small to the issue at hand.
If the conversation is already flowing, it will be easier than you think and ask follow-up questions. Your boss could be the one to make the first step, "So, tell me what's going on with [X]." Thanks to the small talk, you'll already be in sync. You can then pivot to a more meaningful discussion that showcases your knowledge, contribution and confidence.
For introverts, small talk can be painful. But if you say nothing in those moments before a meeting starts or when you and your boss are in the elevator, you run the risk of becoming invisible.
It's natural to defer to authority. You are who you are, and no one is expecting a soliloquy out of you. But when you make an effort to speak up, others will listen and connect with you.