Some people have no problem making small talk with groups of people they don't know. In fact, they actually enjoy it. In case you didn't know, these people are called extroverts. For them, meeting new people can be exciting and energizing. However, not everyone feels comfortable in these types of social situations. There are many people, myself included, who are introverts. Most of the time an introvert will feel anxiety about new social situations and will often try to avoid them as much as possible. There is nothing wrong with that and it doesn't mean that they are shy or that they lack confidence. It just means that they aren't as social as their extroverted counterparts.
If you're an introvert, or know someone who is, I'm sure you know how awkward networking events can be. It seems that whenever I am in a large group, like at an office party, a workshop or even neighborhood block party, I always find myself standing off to the side and wondering how to introduce myself to the other people. It's frustrating and the social anxiety makes it hard for me to really get the most of the networking opportunity.
I wanted to push myself to handle these situations better and so I thought that the best way to fix things was to find out how to start and hold a conversation. I've never been very good at small talk, but I know that it's the best way to get to know a new contact and establish some sort of initial bond. Even though the conversation itself may be about trivial things, it paves the way to conversations about things that are important.
So what is the goal when engaging in small talk?
Basically, the goal is to establish enough common ground with someone in order to determine if you want to connect with them again. Because both parties are trying to accomplish this, it's important to listen and ask probing questions. These types of questions give you the chance to steer the conversation and the answers will give you clues about who the person is and what things they enjoy talking about, which will lead to follow up questions.
Here are a few questions you can ask to get a conversation going:
What is your connection to the event? - If you are at a networking event, this is a much better question than "Have you been here before?". It lets you find out who the person is and why they are there, rather than giving them the option of a "yes" or "no" answer.
What's been keeping you busy lately? - This questions works a little better than asking "What do you do?". It also allows the other person to tell you something about their job or a hobby that they are passionate about. Depending on their answer, you can ask follow up questions and find a common interest to talk about.
Have you gone away this summer? - Or "Are you getting away this summer?". Asking about travel plans or other recreational plans is a great way to start a conversation about family, special interests and travel. Even if the person has no plans to take a vacation, they will probably tell you why they aren't able to take the time away or they could give you some clues about what they would want to do if they could.
Remember that it doesn't really matter what you talk about. People may not remember what you said to them, but they will remember how you made them feel. If you are genuinely interested in them and give them the chance to talk, they will leave the conversation with a positive impression. The most important thing is to relax and treat everyone you talk to as if they were as important, because they are. You can never know how much a chance meeting and a good conversation can help you in the future. If you still feel anxious about initiating conversation, try challenging yourself to talk to at least three people at any event.
Do you have trouble breaking the ice? What questions do you typically ask? Please share your thoughts and suggestions in the comments.