Small Talk:

How do I come up with something to say?

Dear Dr. Tina:

When I get on the phone to my boyfriend I don't know what to talk about.  What do I do?

(F)16 Neosho, Missouri

Dear Jennie:

There are several ways to create a good phone conversation. What is your boyfriend interested in? Does he play sports? If he does, ask some questions about the last game he was in - if you ask questions, about stuff he knows, he'll carry most of the conversation with his answers. Talk about your classes and what you did today, then ask him what he did. Your conversation should be like a game of catch - you throw the ball (ask a question), he'll catch it, (answer ) and hopefully then throw it back (ask another question) which you can catch (answer). If you get used to tossing the conversational ball back and forth, it will go easily.
For Adults in the Same Situation:
Being tongue tied and at a loss for words isn't just the domain of teen-agers.  Whether it's in a networking situation, on a date or on the phone, adults often find themselves struggling with small talk.

Small talk is characterized by broad subjects that don't get too personal.  Professor Higgins in "My Fair Lady" said it best, "Stick to the weather and health."  Of course Eliza Doolittle managed to go too far on that one as she mentioned all of the ills within her family at the Ascot! Even with health you can get yourself in trouble.

The purpose of small talk is to break the ice and learn a little about the person with whom you are speaking without getting too personal.  In the 8 Levels of Intimacy, small talk is within the domain of Physical, (what you can see, hear, feel, smell and taste about the person) Aesthetic, (preferences in music, food and art) and Recreational Intimacy (activities). These three areas open up a world of conversation. 

In a networking event, finding something interesting about the person you're speaking to is fairly easy.  What is he or she wearing? What stands out about them? If it's an unusual piece of jewelry or tie or scarf, ask what the story is behind it.  Perhaps it is the manner in which he or she carries him/herself.

"When you walk in the room, you command quite a presence and I couldn't help but notice you.   I've always wished I could portray such confidence. How do you do that?  What gives you that incredible edge?"

"Your earrings are exquisite.  They must have quite a story.  I'd love to hear it!"

Business cards also provide terrific catalyst, "You're an attorney?  What motivated you to practice law?"

The key to keeping the conversation going whether on the phone or in person is to ask open-ended questions and build upon the answers.  Attorneys do this very well.  If you've ever dated one you'll notice most give very little information about themselves because they place the focus on you by constantly asking you to clarify a statement or asking a follow on question. TOP

Open-ended questions ask for details and cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. These types of questions generally begin with How, Why or What.  Think of a three-year-old when you want to extend a conversation.  "Why? Why? Why? But why Daddy?"  And "Because I said so" is not an answer!  Still, the lesson is germane. The three year-old is able to keep the conversation going indefinitely, at least until Dad's knowledge archives run dry.

Close-end questions generally begin with Do, Can, Are, Will, Is, Shall, May, and What.  What plays double duty because it can refer to a specific answer like, "What is the capital of Texas?" or a hypothetical answer like, "What do you think we should do about the budget shortfall?"

In a court of law, when a witness is being difficult the attorney will ask permission to treat the witness as hostile. Treating the witness as hostile basically means asking close-ended questions that can only be answered with a yes or no. This is done to limit the information presented and control the conversation.  In small talk, using close ended questions has the same effect on the person you are speaking with.  He or she will often feel interrogated  rather than engaged.

The Importance of Education

Communication is a learned skill and one you will never stop learning.  Likewise, your ability to communicate is not necessarily correlated to your level of education, past high school, (High school does teach the rudimentary skills necessary to articulate a thought or idea in a manner acceptable to society).  In high school you learn how to put together a sentence.  What goes in it comes from your life, interests and extra-curricular pursuits.  This is where your real education begins.

If you are feeling at a loss for words this can mean two things.  If you are in a new relationship or just meeting someone, it can mean that your uncomfortable in the situation because you feel you have nothing to bring to the conversation.  This is never true.  Each person has experiences and lessons learned unique only to them.  If you feel that you don't know enough to speak, it is time to become the student.  Everyone loves to talk about their areas of expertise and passions. Ask the person you are speaking with what made that day, year, week or occasion stand out in their mind.  Ask what he or she considered the most significant event of the past week.  Ask the person you are speaking with to share their wisdom with you and in turn build your own knowledge.

Another way to arm yourself for social situations is to start reading magazines, books and articles you wouldn't normally pay attention to.  Men find it quite amusing to pick up a copy of Cosmo or Marie Claire to gain a woman's perspective and women can learn a lot by reading issues of Men's Health, Sports Illustrated and yes, Maxim or really can read it for the articles!  You'll learn a lot about what men are interested in.

Following current events is critical and this means more than just reading your local paper.  It means gathering information from both sides of issues.  For example if you watch FOX News and MSNBC, balance your news by reading CounterPunch and IndyMedia.  One without the other gives you just half the story, regardless of what the advertising tag lines say and you'll find you have a wide variety of topics to discuss by understanding both sides.  As you begin more familiar with what is going on in the world, you'll find your conversations become more passionate whether you are speaking about the latest sex scandal, human rights violation or world events.

The second issue that can be causing you to stall in conversations, especially if it is with someone you've been going out with for a while is that you are both avoiding the elephant in the middle of the room.  Basically, there is an unresolved issue you need to discuss and you both are afraid to bring it up.  This is a more in-depth problem, but if you think this may be what is causing your relationship and communication to stall, review Levels 4, 5, 6 and 7 in the 8 Levels of Intimacy and ask yourself the questions at the top of each page.  These questions will help you identify where the problem is and then you just need the courage to discuss it.  Once the elephant is gone from the room, you'll find conversation flows easy again!


The bottom line to creating engaging conversations is take an interest in the person you are speaking with by asking open-ended questions and following up on those answers by elaborating on the details.  To continue to have great conversations with a new love or colleague, never stop learning.  Read, experience and question.  In time you'll find you are never without words to say. <CC>

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