For many of us, the idea of walking into a crowded room and striking up a conversation is no joke. As a nation, we’re not great conversationalists, but we can overcome our terror of small talk.
Its may be a sweeping generalisation, but it’s fair to say that the aristocratic art of conversation got lost somewhere én route to the colonies. We see ourselves as a nation of hard workers, not the ‘chattering classes’.
But there is a downside to this. Arguably, our awkward conversation skills are part of the reason for our binge-drinking culture. In a panel interview that included broadcasters Hayley
Holt and Claire Robbie, they admitted their social anxiety was the reason they started drinking as teenagers and slid into alcoholism. In getting sober, Hayley had to learn that ‘everyone
is self-conscious, everyone thinks they’re the biggest idiot in the room … enjoy the awkward’.
We can all learn to ‘enjoy the awkward’ with a few key skills.The first is to reframe our thinking. If we’re caught up with worrying about ourselves, it’s hard to focus on someone else. So shift your focus onto the other person. See it as an opportunity to find out their story—everyone has one to tell.
Learn to ask questions. The four ‘Ws’ of fact-finding are useful to remember when opening a conversation: who, what, why, where, how. Who are they? What do they do for a living? (Yes,
it’s a cliché, but it’s simply a conversation opener). Where do they come from? Why are they in here? For example:
You: What do you do?
Random person: I’m a neuro-surgeon.
You: [Help! They’re so brainy! What do I say? What do I know about neuro stuff, that’s brain stuff right? Aaaaarggh!] Oh fascinating. You must have done some amazing work. What
does your job entail, exactly?
But don’t just fire off questions. Reflect on their answers, and give feedback. There is almost always something that you can relate to in what another person is saying. For example: ‘Wow, neuro-surgeon … it must give you a sense of real purpose. I think it’s really important to have purpose in life. I’m a rubbish collector and I think if I didn’t do my job, it would put the health of our community in jeopardy.’
Embrace small talk. For many of us, it doesn’t come naturally—but see it as the doorway to deeper connection. We build trust through those initial ‘surface conversations’ and as we discover the other person is kind and empathetic, we begin to open up. Small talk is just the starting point for friendship.
If the person doesn’t ask questions back, then they’re a jerk. Just joking, take heart that you are more skilled in the art of
conversation than them.
Interview with journalist Claire Robbie, broadcaster Hayley Holt and comedian Guy Williams, by Jehan Casinader on The Inside Word:
Guy: Everyone feels awkward—at a party, at your job, doing stand-up comedy. Everyone feels awkward, and it’s fine to feel awkward.
Claire: So you’re just super okay with that awful, uncomfortable feeling that kicks in?
Guy: Yeah, you get used to it more and more. I enjoy feeling uncomfortable.
Jehan: So, Hayley, what does freedom look like?
Hayley: Freedom looks like embracing all of your flaws.
(c) 'War Cry' magazine, 3 November 2018, p10- You can read 'War Cry' at your nearest Salvation Army church or centre, or subscribe through Salvationist Resources.