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Blog Short #187: How to Make Small Talk if You’re an Introvert

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If you’re an introvert, going to a conference or a party and making small talk with people you don’t know is a form of slow torture.

I had an office mate who used to say she’d rather stab herself in the eye than stand around and try to come up with inane comments to talk to people she didn’t know. That’s a little graphic and intense, but it sometimes feels like that to someone highly introverted.

There are some solutions, however, and even a staunch introvert can get good at talking to people they don’t know.

Let’s begin with why people talk to each other.

The Need to Connect

If you’re an introvert, you understand that when you do talk to someone, you do it because it has meaning for you. You feel a connection with the other person.

For introverts, this usually involves conversing with someone you know well and resonate with. Your conversations have purpose and stimulate you. They add something rather than drain you.

Talking to people you don’t know doesn’t have that same effect, but these conversations can also create a connection and add something. For an introvert, this takes practice and won’t happen overnight.

There are three things to consider when you initiate a conversation with anyone:

1. People enjoy talking about themselves.

You’re probably disagreeing with me right now because you know people who don’t like to talk about themselves, and you’re right. Not everyone does, but overall, if someone has an opportunity to talk about what’s important to them, they will.

2. When someone feels understood, they feel connected.

Being understood can happen in a single interaction. You pass a group of people complaining about the construction on a busy road just before Christmas, and you stop for a second and say, “Yeah, it’s a pain. What were they thinking?” They all nod yes, and one guy gives you a high five. You smile and move along. They felt understood, and for a brief moment, you connected.

Being understood can also occur in a lengthy one-on-one conversation with someone, even if that someone is a person you’ve never met before.

The same dynamic is in play when that happens. You can commiserate or resonate with something important to that person because you understand how they feel. I’ll get to how to make that happen in a minute.

3. Small talk is not about diving into a deep conversation right away.

It’s about getting to know someone, finding some similarities or ways to connect, and getting your feet wet. When you’ve made small talk with someone once, you can deepen the interaction the next time you see them.

Now for strategies.

5 Strategies to Make Conversation with New People

As we discuss these strategies, imagine that you’re at a conference with hundreds of people and will be required to attend mixers with the whole group.

1. Have three questions ready.

This strategy comes from Charles Duhigg’s book Supercommunicators.

He says to jot down the following:

  • What are two topics you would like to discuss?
  • What’s something you’d like to say to show what you’re interested in talking about?
  • What’s a question you will ask to probe the other person’s interests?

In his book, Mr. Duhigg remarked that most often, you never end up using the topics you jotted down, but having them to fall back on helps you feel less anxious. And you might use them!

2. Be curious and ask open-ended questions.

You could ask something like, “What brings you to this conference?” That’s a good opening question. Then, depending on the answer, you can ask more specific questions like this:

You: “What brings you to this conference?”
Them: “I’m here for my job.
You: “What do you do?”
Them: “I’m a software developer.”
You: “Wow, that sounds interesting. Is it something you enjoy, or just a job for you?
Them: “I love it! It’s really stimulating and fun. I get bored easily, and it keeps me engaged.”
You: “I get bored easily too. How did you get started?”

You’ve asked some general questions, but you slipped in some personal ones that go a little deeper and you revealed something personal about yourself. You’re on the way to making a connection.

When you start with questions and show curiosity in your responses, the other person knows you’re listening and is encouraged to reveal more about themselves.

Then you can reciprocate—without taking over the conversation, of course—but create a comfortable volley back and forth.

3. Recognize when someone doesn’t want to engage in small talk, and don’t personalize it.

If you approach someone and introduce yourself, but they look away, fidget, and look down at their phone, they’re letting you know they don’t want to talk.

Don’t take this personally. Many people are uncomfortable with small talk and refuse to engage in it. Sometimes, they’re simply preoccupied with something else.

Anxiety and self-talk can get in the way in these instances, and you can decide that people don’t like you. In most cases, the rejection is not about you. It’s about something having to do with the person you’ve approached. So, move along to someone else.

4. Match the other person’s mood and energy.

This one’s another offering from Mr. Duhigg. He says that matching the other person’s energy level and mood when conversing signals that you want to align with them and make a connection.

For example, suppose you tell someone how excited you are about a new job, and they respond with a small smile and a “That’s nice,” statement. How would you feel? You would probably feel deflated and uncomfortable.

When someone’s talking, take care to make sure your responses match their mood and energy so they feel a connection with you.

5. Use humor.

Unless you’re talking to “Scrooge,” humor is always an icebreaker and a bridge to connect with ease. It puts you on the same side automatically and creates intimacy. When you laugh with someone, you synchronize with them. You click.

Here’s a cool fact: When you click with someone, your brains and bodies synchronize with each other. Here’s a description of that process from Mr. Duhigg:

“When we click with someone, our eyes often start to dilate in tandem; our pulses match; we feel the same emotions and start to complete each other’s sentences within our heads. This is known as neural entrainment, and it feels wonderful.”

I’m sure you’ve had this experience but weren’t aware of the neurological and physiological synchronization that was going on.

This can happen when you feel like someone totally gets you as you talk to each other, or you’re going back and forth about something you both agree on and have a strong interest in, or you’re genuinely laughing and tickled about something.

Sometimes, small talk develops into a deeper conversation when you’re engaged and showing interest in the other person. Other times, it opens the door to more conversations down the road. Both scenarios are fine.

How to End the Conversation

Always excuse yourself in a way that doesn’t leave the other person feeling rejected. Say that you need to go and why. The why doesn’t have to be elaborate. Once you’ve done that, say, “I’ve enjoyed talking and getting to know you.” If there’s the possibility you’ll see them again, you can say, “Hope to see you again.”

Mr. Duhigg recommends that after you announce you need to leave, say, “Let me ask you one more thing before I go,” and then ask. By doing that, you verify your interest in them even though you must end the conversation. This assumes, of course, that you do want to talk to them again.

Challenge Yourself

Now that you have some strategies, make a game of it. Challenge yourself to talk to people you don’t know and get better at it.

Ask the server in a restaurant a few questions about themselves or the cashier in the grocery line. Or say something to someone waiting in the checkout line with you. I’ve made friends with a cashier in Whole Foods and now always go through her line.

The more you practice, the easier it gets and the less discomfort you’ll have at social and work events. You won’t mind it. It might wear you out, but you won’t be anxious, and you’ll make new friends.

That’s all for today!

Have a great week!

All my best,


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