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Open up your small talk

Great small talkers know that the key to creating meaningful and significant conversation is a matter of asking the right questions. Asking the right questions can help build and develop stronger relationships. Your goal when small talking should be to try to learn about and connect with the other person, not just to pass the time with purposeless chatter. So what are the right questions?

“Every great romance and each big business deal begins with small talk. The key to successful small talk is learning how to connect with others, not just communicate with them.” Bernardo J. Carducci

Open questions are key

You will never learn much about anybody by just discussing the weather. So what do you do? Closed questions like “How was your weekend?” or “What do you do?” can be answered quickly, without thinking in one word or a short phrase. “Good” and “I’m an engineer” don’t teach us a lot about the other person. Equally important, closed questions focus simply on the person asking the question – we want to focus on the person answering the question.

Open questions like “What was the best part of your weekend?” or “How did you end up in your field of work?” encourage the other person to pause, think and reflect. Open questions need to be answered with feelings, opinions and stories. And this is when you might be surprised and truly learn something about the other person.

So try using some of the open questions below the next time you’re making small talk.

Instead of . . .

Use. . .

How was your weekend? What was the best part of your weekend?
What do you do for work? How did you end up in your field of work?
How was your day? What did you do today?
What’s your name? What’s your story?
How’s the project going? What part of the project is the most important /challenging to you?
Are you happy with your current supplier? Tell me about the last time you had a problem with your current supplier.
Is the project on time and in budget? How do you measure the project’s success?

Try a 3:1 Ratio

Open questions can push the small talk further. However, you can’t just ask open questions. Closed questions serve a purpose, too. Closed questions are a good way to warm up or get the conversation going in the first place. So try using 3 closed questions to 1 open question. This establishes a comfortable balance, but still allows for the opportunity to really connect with somebody.

Here’s an example of questions to ask when making small talk with a stranger at a business convention.

  • Have you been to this convention before? (closed question)
  • Are there any speakers you’re looking forward to hearing today? (closed question)
  • So where do you work? (closed question)
  • How did you end up working for XYZ company? (open question)

Remember small talk is not about avoiding uncomfortable silence, but a chance to create insightful conversation. So give the other person a chance to tell you their story by asking them open questions.

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1 reply
  1. Jennie Wright
    Jennie Wright says:

    This is great Lindsay, I especially like the 3:1 ratio idea and I think this helps English learners build rapport a little easier. I also think listening is a key skill too so even if you are focusing on the language you use, it is important to remember to listen and respond to what’s being said.

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