6 steps to small-talk success

By: Jessica Padykula

Author: Canadian Living


6 steps to small-talk success

By: Jessica Padykula
It's that time of year again, when office parties, dinner parties and all other forms of social soirees become the norm. While fun for some, the thought of making small talk with total strangers can bring panic to others.

Erika Hilliard, a registered clinical social worker in Vancouver, British Columbia and author of Living Fully with Shyness and Social Anxiety: a Comprehensive Guide to Gaining Social Confidence (Marlowe & Company, 2005) offers her tips on preparing for party season.

1. Have a plan of action
Make a list of party anxieties and then give them a more realistic spin, Hilliard suggests. Your anxieties can easily take over your thoughts if you let them. By staying ahead of what might worry you, you can plan in advance for how to deal with social snafus. For example, if you know that you're going to panic about not having anything to say, choose some possible conversation topics before you head out the door so you'll have something to rely on when you get there.

Come prepared with three topics you can draw on in case you're stuck for something to talk about. Hilliard suggests recent movies, news or current events, and your own interests and hobbies. But avoid putting too much pressure on yourself. "Don't think you have to carry the entire weight of the conversation. Do expect some awkwardness and silence – that's normal," Hilliard says.

2. Do some imagery work
It's easy to get into a pattern of negative thinking, especially if we already feel anxious. To combat it, the best defence is a positive offence. Instead of painting a negative picture of what you think will happen at the party, paint a wonderful picture of what you want to experience, explains Hilliard. "Imagine yourself at the party, reaching out to someone first."

A good way to further your positive imagery is affirmations. Say positive affirmations in your head, Hilliard suggests. Keep them short and in the present tense such as "I am enjoying myself." Or "This is a fun party." Your body responds to what is going through your mind. If you are painting a negative picture of your situation or thinking negative thoughts, your body will respond with stress, Hilliard explains.

Page 1 of 2 -- Do holiday parties make you feel stressed? Discover simple tricks to help you stay calm and be confident on page 2
3. Stay calm
Learn techniques to calm yourself down. One of Hilliard's favourite techniques is 'grounding'. Become aware of the sensation of various parts of your body, for example, your feet, she says. Focus on how your feet feel in your shoes, notice the air around you, feel your hands in your lap or your back against a chair. "Really get into the sensations," she says. "This technique is good for any overwhelming feeling, such as grief, stress or anxiety."

Grounding is effective because there is nothing that will bring you into the present moment like a physical sensation, Hilliard explains.  If you are in the present, you will be better able to focus on being open, smiling and meeting people, rather than being stuck inside your head, worrying about what to say or whom to approach.

4. Take initiative
There is so much focus on 'me' and how and 'I' am coming across, says Hilliard. Instead of focusing entirely on you and how you think you're being perceived, work on taking initiative, she suggests. Be the first to ask someone their name rather than standing around, worrying about whether or not someone is going to talk to you.

Draw the other person out by asking open-ended questions. But remember to also give information about yourself. Don't just answer a question with a yes or no. Give a little extra that might help the conversation flow.

If you are stuck for something to say and can't recall any of the topics you thought about in advance, comment on your immediate surroundings to get things going. Observe the house, the decor, the food or people around you.

Instead of being preoccupied with not belonging, look at people and silently, in your mind, say "I'm glad you'e here, I welcome you." This will help you remain open, Hilliard explains. From here, the next step is to smile and say hello.

5. Watch your body language
Often, when we are feeling awkward or out of place, we don't realize how closed off our body language becomes. Even if you don't feel comfortable walking up to a group of people you don't know, make sure your body language isn't giving you away. Walk tall and have a good posture, Hilliard says. Make eye contact, smile, and don't cross your arms or legs.

Take stock of the impression you are giving. If you look like you're not having any fun, no one will want to talk to you.

6. Remember you're not alone

Worrying about what you're going to say or how you're going to come across in social settings is a common fear. "What you think is unique to you, other people are feeling," Hilliard says.

The message out there is that shyness is negative, but much of the population feels shy at some point. It's normal.

Acknowledge you might be feeling shy, but don't dwell on it, Hilliard says. In fact, tell yourself it's OK.
"You can live fully with some shyness," she says. The key is to find balance. Embrace that part of yourself but also move out of your comfort zone and take initiative in social situations.

Read more:
Tips for boosting your self-esteem
The dos and don'ts of being a good friend
How to deal when people cross the line

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6 steps to small-talk success