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A Book

The Fine Art of Small Talk

Debra Fine

The Fine Art of Small Talk (2005) offers practical advice for cultivating conversation skills. Drawing on anecdotes from the author’s own journey to becoming a confident small-talker, these blinks will teach you how to initiate, sustain and exit conversations with ease and grace.

With practical advice and conversation “cheat sheets,” The Fine Art of Small Talk will help you learn to feel more comfortable in any type of social situation, from lunch with the boss to an association event to a cocktail party where you don’t know a soul.

Fine fully engages her audience. She involves readers in the discussion and gives the lists of lines people can use to start, maintain, or end a conversation. She discusses conversation topics and how to use them and also includes quizzes, throws in a poem and scatters a few cartoons to break up the test. Originally released as an audiocassette in 1997, this work comes across much like one of her seminars on small talk.

Top 20 Insights from the Book

  1. You’re in charge of initiating conversations with others, and      learning a few simple skills can help you do it gracefully.

  2. Think of good questions ahead of time to improve your      conversations.

  3. Listening is an important part of small talk, and is more than just      knowing the words that people are saying to you.

  4. Small talk requires thought and planning, much like an interview.

  5. Many things our parents taught us as kids naturally make us      hesitant to meet new people. It takes effort to break this thought      pattern. We have to be aware of our personal barriers to effective small      talk.

  6. We can be blind to our bad habits that lead conversations down the      wrong road. Be aware if you constantly monopolize a conversation.

  7. Search out new information not by asking “So what’s new?” ask      specific questions that lets someone know you really want to know more.

  8. When you refer to people by their name in      a conversation, it makes them feel special and shows that you’ve been      paying attention.

  9. In a social setting, the best person to      approach for a conversation is one who makes eye contact with you.

  10. The biggest block between two people is      their inability to listen to each other intelligently, understandingly,      and skilfully.

  11. The truth is, most people don’t want      advice—they want empathy and compassion.

  12. Start thinking of strangers as people who      can bring new dimensions to your life, not as persons to be feared.

  13. When you invite someone to tell you about      his family or her job, you will receive additional free information that      you can use to further the conversation.

  14. You can notice and compliment someone      else’s behavior. This is the best way to converse with kids. Instead of      noticing when they do something wrong, try celebrating positive behavior.      It’ll go a long way toward furthering communication with them and deepening      your bond.

  15. If you want a promotion but come across      as aloof or reserved, you’ll be overlooked in favor of someone who has      warm “people skills”—skills that make others feel good about being around      them.

  16. Frequently, you find yourself in an      awkward silence or a pregnant pause in the conversation. It is up to you      to either invigorate the conversation or allow it to slowly grind to a      halt. Do your part to charge up the conversation by being prepared with      questions on the origin and history of those people you are with.

  17. Becoming an expert at small talk can help      you make the most of meetings, interviews, and networking events.

  18. Some of our earliest training has made us      predisposed to refrain from initiating a conversation: Good things come to      those who wait, Silence is golden, Wait to be properly introduced, and      Don’t talk to strangers. Now as adults, our safety isn’t at stake with      every new person we meet. Replace those old messages with more relevant      advice: In safe situations, make it a point to talk to strangers;      Introduce yourself; Silence is impolite; Good things come to those who get      them; It’s up to you to start a conversation; and It’s up to you to assume      the burden of conversation.

  19. Pay attention to your body language.      Don’t hunch your shoulders, cross your arms, or fidget. Instead, maintain      eye contact, nod, smile, and even lean in a little.

  20. It’s perfectly normal to feel shy. Many      people make the mistake of thinking that just because they’re afraid to      talk to people it means they’ll always be that way. Thankfully, that’s not      true, your mind is much more fluid than you think.

Chapter 1: Small talk is a skill that can be learned.

Shy people often think that since they weren’t born with naturally good communication skills, they’ll never have conversational clout. But small talk isn’t a biological trait or something we intuitively know. It’s time to put that idea aside and adopt a new understanding of small talk.

The bottom line is that small talk is a skill that can be learned. Sure, some people are naturally able to navigate social situations better than others. But most of us have to work to develop our conversation skills.

As a shy and overweight bookworm, the author eventually sought out a career in engineering, which involved little communication with others. When her job did entail attending meetings or conferences, she was filled with anxiety. In these situations, she would go into autopilot, attempting to converse with people by asking what their jobs were. This inevitably meant that every conversation dried up within a few minutes.

Around the time she was turning 40, she realized that her weight and negative self-image were holding her back. Then she and her husband divorced. Realizing that she needed to make some changes if she wanted to meet new people, she committed to taking care of her health and lost 65 pounds. Then she set off to cultivate social skills by observing and imitating successful conversationalists around her.

At a bar one night, her friend convinced her to approach a man who had exchanged glances with her but hadn’t approached her. The man, named Rex, was delighted when she introduced herself. Their conversation that night led to a close friendship. And in time, Rex revealed something surprising to her: he hadn’t approached her that night at the bar because he had been too shy!

Discovering both someone else’s insecurity and the fact that her friendship with Rex wouldn’t have existed if she hadn’t made the uncharacteristic effort to approach him showed the author the power of small talk. From then on, she dedicated herself to mastering this skill and helping others do the same. Since then, her business, The Fine Art of Small Talk, has helped thousands of people learn conversation skills. By following the practical advice in the following book summary’s, you too can become an adept conversationalist

Chapter 2: The Importance of Names

Now that you have committed to having a conversation, you must now remember the single most important rule of a good conversation: Learn and use their names. To master this skill, you’ll need to stay focused during the introduction and repeat the name back in your greeting, like “Nice to meet you, Debra.” Unfortunately, many of us are too busy concentrating on our replies to remember the other person’s name. So focus on the name, repeat it, and then formulate your answer.

If you do happen to get distracted and miss the other person’s name, confess! Simply say something like “Excuse me, I’m not sure I got your name.” This is always a better option over faking it. Never, ever fake it. This is especially true when you run into someone who you’ve met previously but have forgotten their name. Simply say, “I’m so sorry. I’ve forgotten your name. Please remind me.” Be proactive and you’ll prevent any impending disaster. Instead of being proactive, we typically try to avoid people because we’ve forgotten their names. However, if we assume the burden and tell the truth, chances are that we’ll go on to have a pleasant conversation. In fact, if we ignore someone because we are embarrassed over having forgotten her name, then your behavior may be misconstrued as rude.

Sometimes we meet people with foreign or unusual names. When this happens, you must make the effort to learn the correct pronunciation, even if it means repeating the name a few times. When you take the time to learn another person’s name, you are expressing a genuine interest in that person and making the person feel warm and comfortable. On the other hand, when you become too lazy to learn a difficult name, you are sending a message that learning his name is not worth your trouble.

In fact, learning names has many benefits in addition to making people feel comfortable. For example, when Debra was seated at a table of eight, she immediately introduced herself to the three sitting at the table. As the others arrived, Debra extended her hand, introduced herself, and made the introductions to the other three. She acted as the host which put everyone at ease and created an atmosphere of warmth and appreciation that naturally encouraged conversations. Acting as a host can position you as a leader in the group.

When it comes to names, it’s also important to nix the nicknames. For example, if a colleague introduces himself as “Michael” then don’t call him “Mike.” If he wanted you to call him “Mike,” then he would have introduced himself that way. So make the effort to use their name and don’t shorten it without permission. Finally, it’s better to give than to receive. Think about giving your name as a random act of kindness, even if you’ve met him or her previously and think they should remember your name. Instead, say something like “Hi, Patrick, Debra Fine. How are you?” By stating your name, you let Patrick off the hook and he doesn’t have to waste conversation time being distracted trying to recall your name.

Chapter 3: Assume the burden of a conversation by learning people’s names and preparing icebreakers.

Ever found yourself chatting to a stranger who put you completely at ease? Chances are, said stranger didn’t achieve this by accident. Most of us hope that others will take on the responsibility to drive conversations forward. But expert communicators know that guiding a conversation evokes the positive feelings that make people want to work or socialize with them.

One easy way of assuming the responsibility for guiding a conversation is to act like you’re a host. Just like any host should, focus on learning the name of each person you speak to. After you introduce yourself, ask your conversation partner “What’s yourname?” Put the emphasis on “your” to make them feel valued.

Following introductions, it’s then up to you to establish conversation topics. You can prepare yourself for this by formulating icebreakers beforehand. Try to come up with something more thoughtful than asking people what they do for a living, as this rarely leads to a long-lasting or in-depth conversation. Instead, you might ask how they got started in the industry if you’re at a business event, or about their hobbies if it’s a social function.

You could also think of more creative questions, which may lead to a more interesting discussion. The author once watched a TV segment in which a reporter was sent undercover to a party. After introducing herself to a random guest, he asked her what her star sign was, initiating a conversation about astrology. Your icebreakers don’t need to be this bold, but one of your goals should be to make your conversation partners feel comfortable by demonstrating your interest in them

Chapter 4: The Importance of Body Language and Listening

So now that you’ve learned about the talking part of a conversation, it’s time to move on to an equally important aspect of conversation: listening. The problem in many conversations is that our human brain can take on much more information that one person can realistically divulge. This causes us to become distracted in conversation. When this happens, we begin to listen to other conversations, think about what we are going to have for dinner, and even drift away into our private thoughts. Oftentimes we drift too far, and suddenly we’ve missed something important!

Have you ever been having a conversation with someone and become frustrated when you feel as if they aren’t listening? What is that person doing that lets you know they aren’t listening? Maybe they’re looking away, looking on their phone, crossing their arms, or exhibiting behavior that seems as if they’re uninterested. That’s because nonverbal communication is significantly more important than verbal communication. In fact, Ray Bird whistle “estimated that in a normal two-person conversation, verbal components carry less than 35 percent of the social meaning of the situation, while nonverbal components account for over 65 percent.”

For instance, when eight-year-old Nicholas comes home from school, he excitedly begins to tell his dad about his great day at school. He explains everything that happened that day, including painting a cool picture of the mountains, playing soccer in gym class and scoring a goal. Meanwhile, Nick’s dad is reading the newspaper so Nick states, “Dad, you’re not listening to me!” His dad then proves that he was listening by repeating everything Nick just said. Nick, unappeased, says, “No, Dad. That’s not it. You’re not listening to me with your eyes.” Even though Nick’s dad was, indeed, listening, Nick felt minimized because he didn’t have his father’s full attention. Nick wanted more than just his dad to hear him, he wanted to feel connected, that his dad was invested. He wanted to feel validated. This is why it’s important in conversation to be aware of your body language. You might be listening but when you exhibit a certain behavior, like looking away, crossing your arms across your chest, putting your hands on your hips, fiddling with jewelry, or even glancing away from the person who is speaking, you give the impression that you are uninterested and don’t care. So what should you do instead to make the person you are talking to feel connected and validated? Some positive body language cues include leaning forward, maintaining eye contact, relaxing your body posture, facing your partner, and nodding and smiling. By exhibiting these cues, you are showing your speaking partner that you are involved and interested.

Of course, body language is just part of the conversation. You should also aim to use verbal cues to let the speaker know that you are fully engaged in the conversation. These can by anything from brief comments to open-ended questions. For example, simply saying, “Hmmm, I see…” while nodding your head can be a cue that you are engaged and listening. When appropriate, you can use other verbal cues to transition to another topic. Saying “That reminds me of ....” or blatantly asking “Do you mind if I change the subject?” can segue into another topic while still validating the person you are speaking to, allowing you to keep the conversation going.

Chapter 5: Use varied questions and environmental clues to keep conversations alive.

When engaging in small talk, there will inevitably be times when a conversation dips into an awkward silence. If you wait for someone else to think of something to say, though, you’ll risk letting the conversation die entirely. Instead, when awkward silence strikes, take the reins and get the conversation back to a comfortable flow.

One way to fill a conversational pause is to ask a new open-ended question that changes the direction of the discussion. If you have trouble thinking of open-ended questions on the spot, you can trigger your memory with the acronym FORM: family, occupation, recreation and miscellaneous.

While the first three categories are self-explanatory, the miscellaneous category is an opportunity to be more imaginative. You could ask a new acquaintance whether she’s enjoyed any books recently. If you’re joining a group conversation, you could ask the others how they met.

In some cases, you might draw a blank when thinking of questions using FORM, or find that a question about the person’s history might not feel like the right way forward in that particular moment. In these situations, another way to get the conversation going again is to look out for clues by paying attention to your surroundings and the person you’re speaking to. What the person is wearing, the venue you’re in or details about the event you’re attending are all easy topics that you can draw upon when the conversation slows down, or when you’re looking to start a new conversation. For example, you can ask guests at a wedding about their connections to the bride or groom. In any situation, it’s important to be genuine about what you’re saying.

But beware! There are certain topics that you should be careful to avoid. Bringing up gossip, controversial issues or personal misfortunes will in most cases leave your conversation partner with a negative impression of you. What’s more, if you’re talking to a casual acquaintance, try to avoid asking about specific things related to her job or family members that you may remember from a previous conversation. That’s because it’s possible that things have changed in her life since you last spoke. If she lost her job or had a death in the family, asking about that job or family member could easily lead to an awkward downturn in the conversation. Instead, ask more general questions, and allow her to bring you up to date on her life on her own terms.

Chapter 6: How to Exit a Conversation with Ease

At some point, exiting a conversation is necessary whether you’re trying to escape a conversation killer or simply want to circulate more, there are several ways in which you can artfully exit a conversation. If you’re like most people, you may remain in conversation longer than you should for two reasons: 1) you feel trapped if it’s just a two-person dialogue or 2) you feel so comfortable you don’t want to leave. In the latter, comfort leads to complacency, so if you’re somewhere like a networking event, you’ll need to continue striking up conversations with others to get the most out of the event.

So if you want to skillfully leave a conversation, begin by circling back to why you connected with your conversation partner and bring the conversation back to that topic. By doing this, you are making a meaningful connection where you can then take your leave easily. This may look a little something like this: “Tom, it’s been wonderful talking with you about the changes impacting the health-care industry. I need to catch up with another client before she leaves. Thanks for sharing your expertise.” Notice that there was no excuse for leaving. When it comes to gracefully exiting a conversation, honesty is the best policy.

Even if you’re itching to get out of an awful conversation, you should aim to exit tactfully, so try some diplomatic lines like “I want to go talk to the speaker,” “I need to go see the exhibits,” “I want to meet some other potential clients this morning,” and “I promised myself that I’d meet three new people before leaving this evening,” which are all successful exit lines because they put the focus on you. You are the reason you are leaving the conversation and by highlighting your own goals, you take the burden off your conversation partner.

You can even borrow a strategy from the late George Plimpton who planned ahead in case he ever got stuck with a bore at parties. Plimpton always carried two drinks so if he found himself wanting to escape a conversation, he would politely excuse himself by saying he had to deliver the drink. The cardinal rule, however, is doing what you said you were going to do. For example, if you departed a conversation saying you were going to go see the exhibits, don’t get sidetracked before doing so! So if Vince stops you on your way to the exhibits, it’s up to you to say, “Vince, it’s so good to see you. I was just on my way to the exhibits. Would you like to join me or can I catch up with you afterward?” If you make the mistake of getting distracted, you run the risk of insulting the person you just ended a conversation with who now believes you were never on your way to the exhibit in the first place. “Don’t burn a bridge by failing to get to your next destination!”

You can even make a graceful exit by asking your conversation partner for a referral. For instance, if you’ve been talking to Shelly at a cocktail party but need to see more people before it ends, Shelly can help you. You can say, “Shelly, I’ve been having trouble with the graphics package on my Mac at home. Do you know anyone here who uses this program on a PC?” Shelly will either give you a good lead or say she doesn’t know anyone. Either way, it gives you a clean break to either talk to her referral or to find someone else who can help you. Simply thank Shelly, tell her you want to find someone who can help you, and say good-bye. The key here is that you don’t invent a problem just to end the conversation, be honest and stick to your agenda.

At the end of the day, ending a conversation may be difficult, but it can be done gracefully enough so that you leave a lasting impression, make connections, and accomplish your networking or conversational goals.

No matter how well a conversation is going, a poorly executed conclusion can stain the entire interaction. Whether you’re charmed or bored by your conversation partner, you should make an honest effort to exit every encounter with grace.

If you genuinely want to continue the discussion at a later date or simply exchange emails, it’s up to you to assume the burden of politely requesting a follow-up. Then, once you’re finally ready to end the interaction, state what you’re going to do next, shake your acquaintance’s hand and say goodbye.

Another courteous way to end a conversation is to introduce your conversation partner to a new person who joins your group before excusing yourself. This will help your initial acquaintance widen his own network, and should ensure that he doesn’t feel that you’re abandoning him.

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