How can you keep conversation, small talk especially, flowing smoothly when you don’t feel like you have anything to talk about? This is a challenge even with good friends sometimes. Most of the time, this feeling of stagnancy occurs because you are doing exactly that—stagnating—and nothing is being added or extracted from the interaction on either side. But there are several ways you can change that.
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Keep It Flowing and Smooth
Yes, small talk and all of its incarnations are quite dreadful as a whole. But that doesn’t change the fact that we are at least partially responsible for the outcomes we’ve gotten.
What can we do to keep small talk from going stale and heading to a place where none of the people involved want to go? Sometimes it’s like watching a slow descent into a black hole—you know where you’re going, and it seems like there is nothing you can do about it other than ride it out.
So here are a few more ways to keep small talk anything but small.
You might not think about it this way, but conversations and interactions must always be moving somewhere; there must always be a sense of motion.
When you have motion in a conversation, it’s not that you are necessarily injecting it with energy and high spirits. It’s that you can’t stay on the same topic forever, and the conversation needs to evolve in one way or another, or else interest will be lost. It can go deeper, wider, broader, more specific, or onto another topic altogether. But if you stay stagnant and without motion, then… well… what are you doing?
That sounds something like the following: “So yeah, you drove an hour to get here? That’s crazy… Traffic is crazy. But everyone has commutes these days. What kind of traffic was there today?”
That’s an interaction with zero motion, and you can sense it. Let’s look at this in a theatrical context. Let’s suppose that the starting topic for a scene is a visit at the dentist, and it begins in the lobby. Does the scene stay in the lobby? Absolutely not. It moves in at least one of a few ways.
The scene might move locations into the office of the dentist itself.
The scene might introduce multiple different characters.
The scene might change its focus and move away from the dentist altogether.
The scene might change the initial purpose, and the patient is visiting the dentist because he is an assassin, rather than to get his teeth cleaned. And so on. But the lobby is only a part of the story, and motion dictates that it be only temporary.
Contrast any of those situations to a scene that stays exactly in the same lobby, with the same characters, talking about the same thing. It may not be the worst scene, but it would have to be written pretty damn well to be interesting. And we know that’s never the case with small talk.
To boil this section down to one main sentiment, small talk and conversation in general goes much better if you intentionally create motion and seek to end in a different place from where you started. For example, you can’t talk about the weather forever. You need to create motion away from it, or into it from a different angle. You can plan for your conversations to resemble stories and movies, and learn about specific types of motion you can introduce on the fly.
When you go to a movie, you’re not looking for something that fits your daily life. You’re looking for a story about something significant, or unusual or extraordinary, a deviation from your everyday experience. If you’re going to watch a biographical movie, you wouldn’t want to watch the mundane parts of the characters’ lives where they use the bathroom and brush their teeth.
Instead, you want to see the unique, interesting, and exaggerated moments. You want to see conflict, problem solving, then resolution. These are all accomplished by creating motion in normal conversation topics, and not just staying in one place.
A conversation that stays in one place will eventually become boring filler, since topics can easily be exhausted without motion. As I mentioned before, there are only so many comments or questions you can make about the weather. So, how do you create motion in a topic such as the weather?
Types of motion:
• Shift to a topic related to the weather.
• Go deeper into the topic of weather, beyond shallow and surface level comments.
• Share a personal experience with weather.
• Ask what their favorite types of weather are.
• Talk about the emotions the weather invokes in you.
• Discuss your nuanced opinion on the weather.
• Ask outlandish hypothetical questions about the weather.
• Reference third parties (papers, articles, statements from friends) regarding the weather.
Note that these are similar ways of creating motion as the methods of manipulating the scene at the dentist’s lobby from earlier. They force the interaction to go somewhere, and don’t allow it to remain on comments about the weather, or to stay in the dentist’s lobby.
Stagnation is one of the sneakier causes of poor interactions because it’s something we all default to eventually. It’s the lazy person’s way of conversing—relying on the other person to shoulder the burden of topics and details. The rule of creating motion battles stagnation as it forces you to move away from lazy routines. Before one topic is completely bled dry, you can jump to other ones to keep engagement high and prevent dead ends and boredom.
Joseph Campbell was an Ivy League academic who studied the major myths of all the world’s major spiritual traditions, and according to Campbell, the great myths and stories share certain elements in common. Regardless of whom the stories are told to, they are always effective because they hit on certain classic themes that are contained in the Hero Cycle.
The hero of the story starts at point A, and a situation arises that compels the hero to travel to point B. On the way back from point B to point A, certain conflicts and resolutions occur, and the hero is forever transformed and enlightened.
According to Campbell, people respond to the Hero Cycle because we can relate to the stages. We have all struggled, conquered, and grown through fear, adversity, and obstacles. The Hero Cycle goes a long way in explaining how people from all over the world, from all sorts of cultures, class levels and educational backgrounds, deal with the same phenomena in much the same way.
Great conversations are journeys. They never remain in the same place. There is a sense of direction, there is a sense of conflict that needs resolution, and there is a sense of tension that needs to be unwound. You don’t end up in one preset place, but you do achieve closure. There’s a payoff, and that’s what creating motion does.
Let’s take another example where the topic is suddenly steak.
Types of motion:
• What made you bring up steak and why it was on your mind?
• What memories you have with steak.
• How your view of steak has changed over the years.
• A random fact or piece of trivia you know about steak.
• Your emotions regarding steak.
• Ask for their emotions regarding steak.
It seems obvious that an interaction infused with motion must be heading somewhere, but many people will fall prey to one major trap. In the quest for motion, there is the danger of planning ahead with fixed ideas and destinations in mind.
This is dangerous for a few reasons.
First, imagine the concept of a performance with three participants, and all three already have fixed ideas of where they want the scene to go. In essence, they will be influencing each other and trying to herd the other two into the directions they want. It won’t be pretty unless you like hearing three monologues simultaneously.
Second, you run the risk of spectacular failure when you are derailed from the path of your fixed destination. This is because you are so fixated on where you want to go that you haven’t kept an open mind to other subjects or topics, and won’t be able to adapt very well.
If you’ve been thinking the whole time about how to turn the conversation or performance to the subject of cars, you will probably come up tongue-tied when the subject instead turns to different types of hats. If you are open to the destination, you can roll with the punches, so to speak, because your mental bandwidth isn’t otherwise consumed.
Third, having a fixed destination in mind for your conversation makes you too goal-oriented, and by definition this means you are willfully ignoring everything else that happens in front of you. You might even be dismissing your conversation partner and their opinions because they aren’t providing what you are looking for.
Suppose that you want to arrive at the same topic of cars, and other subjects keep getting in the way. Being overly goal-oriented would lead you to continually bring up cars, even though it would be a completely random shift in topic, and unwelcome since it was steered away from multiple times. It makes you appear tone deaf, and people will begin to wonder if you’ve even heard them speak. This tendency also generally makes you a fairly un-engaging conversationalist.
Instead, simply understand when you are being stagnant and lingering on the same topic and the same angle for too long.