While it’s not because you dislike people, that may be the message you’re sending. People who love small talk often don’t understand others who don’t.
Thankfully there are some handy conversational hacks that can help you steer clear of awkward silences and build instant rapport with anyone you meet.
1. Everyone has at least one book in them. Ask about it.
As the old adage goes, everyone has at least one good book in them. Maybe we can append that to, “Everyone thinks they have at least one good book in them.” Either way, people love to talk about themselves, and that’s backed by science.
Neuroscientists have discovered that self-disclosure rewards the pleasure centers of the brain just like food or money. Given an opportunity, most people will tell you a story or two. See if you can figure out what it is they most want to talk about, and let them talk about it. Since you’ll be rewarding their pleasure centers, they will feel inclined to like you.
2. Ask lots of questions.
Questions are great, especially if you personally have nothing to say. A question is a great way of showing interest, and can help guide someone else into talking about themselves or telling you a story. Questions also tend to be great non-judgmental alternatives to opinionated responses.
If someone says something you find offensive, instead of starting an argument, ask them why they feel the way they do. They will probably welcome the opportunity to explain, and you might even learn something.
3. Mirror behavior.
This one works great, but only if you do it to a certain degree. Past that, the result is unsettling and off-putting. Building rapport really is about mirroring and making it seem like a coincidence.
If someone is quiet and reserved, be quiet and reserved back. If they are effusive and enthusiastic, imitate their attitude. If they have a certain pattern of speech you can recognize, use a similar pattern.
If you do a good job with just enough divergences that you still are coming across as authentic, they will believe that you simply naturally are on a wavelength and have similar personalities.
4. If you zone out, repeat the last few words the other person said, but as a question.
Say for example you have zoned out while someone is giving you their take on the U.S. economy. All you catch is “…. have no idea what they’re doing.” You may not be sure who they are talking about or what it is in reference to, but you can sympathetically say, “No idea what they’re doing?”
The other person will assume you simply want more information on their theory. You have a chance to catch up while sounding like you have been listening. This also works great if you are listening, but don’t agree or are not interested in what the other person is saying.
Incidentally, hostage negotiators use this technique with great results. If it works under that kind of duress, imagine what it can do for you in a normal conversation!
5. Be positive about other people.
If you talk about other people, watch what you say. You don’t necessarily need to be overly positive, and you don’t want to come across as naïve, but looking for the good and commenting intelligently on it is much wiser than commenting on the bad you see. Why? There are a couple of reasons, both which relate to transference.
Firstly, when you complain about others, the person listening may assume they are going to be the next to lose your respect, and that you are likely to judge them negatively as well. Secondly, they may associate your complaints with you, and project your complaints right back at you.
This is a notorious issue during job interviews. It is exactly why you should never bad-mouth a former employer, no matter what happened.
Even if it was a terrible catastrophe, you always want to present the good and share what you learned from the experience to help you move forward. If you complain about your former employer, the hiring manager may expect you to feel the same about her, or may feel that you are the negative one.
6. Provide limited but specific details.
There is nothing worse than being stuck in the “How are you?” loop. You know, someone asks, “How are you?” You say, “Good, how are you?” They say, “Good.” Then you both stare at each other awkwardly.
At that point, the conversation is usually already on its way downhill, if not over completely. Those kinds of interactions waste peoples’ time, including yours.
Dare to provide a specific response. Do not focus on general overarching good or bad things—focus on something specific, relatable, and finite. You could for example say, “Good. Last weekend I went out for a hike and had a really great time, how about you?” This makes you seem like less of a cipher, and may provide a conversational topic.
The other person may want to talk about hiking, and then you can escape the “How are you?” loop and potentially move onto a more meaningful interaction.
7. Give someone a compliment.
Sometimes the simplest tricks are the best ones! Everyone loves to be told that they are beautiful, intelligent, and interesting. Even if you don’t feel that way, it isn’t hard to tell someone that you like their hair or something they are wearing or the way they phrased something.
Most people can use a little extra validation, and if you give it to them, they will be grateful for it.
8. Try being honest.
The tips above are ideal if you are talking to a potential employer, a co-worker, a landlord, a neighbor, or someone else that you strategically need to like you so you can get by without stress or drama.
But what about random strangers, people who have the potential to become friends? You can get stranded in small-talk land forever if you never take a chance.
Friendship is always built on a deeper level. Our friends are the people we are comfortable with on a level we would never be with our acquaintances.
So if you don’t need someone to like the façade you present to the world, but you think someone might like the real you, take a chance! After all, these are “nothing to lose” situations.
Give an honest response to a question—or ask a question you would usually avoid. Say something unusual you wouldn’t usually say in a small talk setting. You might be surprised at the results.
You could find yourself with something far better than a new acquaintance. You might end up with a new friend!