Businessman with stomach acheEven typing the word “small talk” gives me stress.

Last summer I was back in the States for a week to pick up Hannah & Erin and bring them to Ireland. While there, I also attended a conference with Hannah for  few days.

While we were there, another pastor that I’ve known fairly well for a number of years came up to chat about our move to Ireland. It was an awkward conversation. After it was over Hannah started laughing at me (once the other person had left of course). It was worthy of being laughed at.

The thing is, I consider myself reasonably intelligent and more than capable of carrying on a conversation with another person. On top of that, I have no question that the other person is quite a bit more intelligent than I am, and even more capable of carrying on a conversation. (& I’m not just  being self –deprecating…he just is.)

Here are these two intelligent people, having a conversation so awkward that it makes a teenage girl (who is also a bit socially awkward) laugh.

The thing is, this wasn’t my first conversation that went like that. What I realized a few years ago was while I’m good and having in-depth conversations with a pretty wide range of people, I am horrible at making small talk. The problem is, most of us aren’t ready to have an in-depth conversation with another person until we’ve built up a relationship with them…and, like it or not, the ability to make small talk is an important part of that process.

So I would force myself to try to make small talk, and all I did was have one exhausting conversation after another, until I finally just resigned myself to the fact that I wasn’t very good at making small talk.

Then earlier this year I was going through a program called Jobnet in Dublin. While I was looking forward to the program, I was a bit nervous because a huge emphasis of the class was on networking…(also known as making small talk with people you don’t know…the hair on the back of my neck stood up as I typed those words.)

One week we had a speaker, Peter Cosgrove, who gave a talk on networking, and it was one of the most helpful things I’ve learned in a long time. I wanted to share a couple of the things he taught about making small talk, because I think they are extremely practical and easy to implement.

Prepare Ahead of Time:

Name 5 things that are red in the next 5 seconds.  Hurry.  4…3…2…1…buzzzzzz.

You know how when you are trying to think of  something and the harder you try…you can feel the stress build up…and often it is later, when you are no longer trying, that it pops back into your head?

If you are going to an event where you know you are going to need to make small talk, and it is not something you are naturally good at, what happens when you try to think of something to say? A-w-k-w-a-r-d–s-i-l-e-n-c-e. And the longer the silence goes, and you keep trying to think of something interesting to talk about…the more you stress, and the whole process becomes exhausting.

So what if you mentally prepared a list of some things to talk about (besides the weather) before heading to a place where you know you’ll be meeting new people?

For example asking the other person, where they live, or where they are from…telling them where you are from. If there is a connection, go from there. If they say, “Rural North Dakota”,  and they have never heard of where you live either, you’ll probably need to move to the next topic on your lis .

The list of suggested topics you could be prepared to talk about included:

  • Where you live
  • Places you’ve travelled
  • Hobbies
  • Current Events (read a couple articles for a news website before you go)
  • Jokes/Anecdotes (think about an interesting experience you’ve had recently, and tell the story. Often this helps others think of a similar experience.)

What you are doing is mining for some connection with this person that you can talk about. Some type of shared interest. Because, let’s face it, those type of events are a lot more enjoyable (and go a lot faster) when you meet someone who you have things in commons with, and can spend your time talking about things you both enjoy talking, or learning about.

Around the same time, Liz and I went to a dinner with a bunch of other church planters from around Dublin, and despite my strong introversion, I left that night energized. In part because it was a great group of people, but also because we had several things in common to talk about which we were all passionate about. And even though I didn’t need the list I’d mentally prepared that night, the experience reaffirmed the importance of going in with something to talk about.

What I learned in going through the class was that I’m not the only one who struggles making small talk. So in making it easier for me, I’m also making it easier for the other person.

What things have you done to help you make these settings more enjoyable?