Conversations form the foundation of our personal and professional relationships. Whether socialising comes naturally to you or not, being able to speak to anyone, anywhere is a handy life skill to have — you never know when you'll discover a new BFF, business contact or even a romantic connection. Plus, it's just nice, you know?
"We rely so much on digital communication [today], that people are increasingly delighted when someone makes conversation and breaks through to the next level," says Anna Musson, founder of The Good Manners Company. "I think it's a skill we all need to work on." From networking events to morning lift run-ins with the CEO, parties to work functions, with Anna's tips, you can eliminate uncomfortable silences and awkward chat from your social repertoire. File this under: things we should've learnt at school.
"The art of conversation is in being a good listener," says Anna. Rather than thinking about what you're going to say next, the key to both sustaining a conversation and making it a productive one for both parties is to really listen to what the other person says and respond to that. "You'll find that natural questions arise in your mind to ask," she adds. "If you imagine Ellen DeGeneres when she's interviewing people, it seems like she has no questions prepared, because she will ask a couple of prompters, the person will run with it, and then all she does is respond to what they say."
Consider Your Surroundings
"Using a scenario based prompt is your best bet because it's the most natural," says Anna. At an event with a host, ask someone about their connection to them. During work functions, introduce yourself and your department, and that provides a springboard for other questions, like 'How long have you been with the company?' etc. "If it's a networking event, and you don't know many people, you can simply say 'Do you know many people here?'" she says. "I find that a really good way to gauge if they are stuck like you are, and you need to start asking other people questions, or if they can introduce you to other people."
In this case, a little cyber stalking isn't a bad idea. "Say you're going to an event where there will be people you would like to meet. It's a good idea to do your research before you go," says Anna. "Do [a bit of a] Google search to find out things they may be interested in that you could potentially ask them about, and that will help build rapport quickly."
Approach Solo People or Small Groups
Attending an event where you know exactly zero people can terrify the best of us. If this is the case, Anna's advice is to look out for people on their own or small groups — preferably no more than three people. "Look for a friendly face and when there's a gap in the conversation, you can go up and say, 'Hello, I don't think we've met. I'm Anna Musson from Good Manners.'" The rest should follow naturally.
Know Your News
Sometimes, you'll find that you just don't click with your conversational partner — it's natural and to be expected. In this case, being familiar with current events and the day's headlines always makes for good small talk. "Always take into account where you are, what's the time of year, what's topical," Anna says. "If everyone's across that, then it's an easy place to go conversationally, particularly if you've got nothing else in common." But remember, avoid topics that have the potential to be contentious, like controversial political developments (read: Trump).
Don't be Afraid to Break the Ice
If you find yourself in the lift say, with the guy from accounts you see everyday but have never actually spoken to properly, introduce yourself. "You can say, 'I know we've seen each other many times. I'm Anna Musson, I'm from XYZ,'" says Anna. "They will hopefully say, 'Yes, I've seen your face. I'm from such and such.'" This way, people feel at ease and it removes any awkward barriers.
Bring Other People In
According to Anna, the best way to revive a conversation or excuse yourself from one that's not going well is to introduce someone else, preferably with an interesting fact. "If someone's walking past you can just say, 'Oh Mary, have you met John? John is also an accomplished tennis player' and then the conversation takes on a whole new life," she says. Other options are to ask, "Do you know many people here?" and offer to introduce them to some people. "It's not good form to make anything up or excuse yourself if there's no one else in the conversation," Anna says. "We always want to make [the other person] feel valued."
If awkward silences are your worst nightmare, take a deep breath and relax — most of the time, it's all in your head. "When you relax, the conversation will take a natural flow and it allows people to think about what you're saying and process it before they make another comment," Anna says. "If you're tense, then you're more likely to feel the awkwardness of what is potentially just a natural pause." However, if you're really feeling the silence, it's fine to make a joke about it — humour works well in Australian culture.