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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!