17 Jul 2023

Expert feature: Small talk

From Afternoons, 2:20 pm on 17 July 2023

If you've ever felt awkward or tongue-tied in a conversation and maybe been a bit embarrassed, Debra Fine might be able to help.

Fine evolved from a shy engineer into an internationally recognised conversation and networking skills expert, motivational speaker and bestselling author.

Her book The Fine Art of Small Talk has been published in over two dozen countries.

Conversation is like playing a game, Fine told Jesse Mulligan.

People talking

People talking Photo: pixabay

“One of the great ingredients to great conversation is to play the conversation game, give somebody something to talk about with you. When they say ‘how was your holiday? Or how are your kids?’ Give them one sentence because they may not have meant it.

“They may have just meant hello, It's just a greeting, it's rhetorical.

"So, just give people a sentence and answer; ‘Oh, my kids are great, we took them on a trip skiing during the holiday, and they really enjoyed it. And then you move on to something else.”

Being a good conversationalist requires someone to assume the burden of keeping that conversation going, she says.

“So, for instance, if I was on a date, and I was meeting a gentleman for the first time, and we've been talking, we've been texting, we've been flirting via devices, I might say to him instead of ‘how are you?’ I might say, ‘Catch me up on your week, or bring me up to date on your work?

"If I say ‘How's your work? How was your work this week? He she, they will probably say, Oh, great, how was yours?”

An open-ended question demands an answer, she says.

If a conversation just isn’t happening, it’s also OK to leave it, she says.

“You can't make people want to talk to you, if they don't want to talk to you.”

She went into an engineering career because she “didn't know how to chat with people,” she says.

“I got to be in sort of a cubby hole. I was the type of individual that when there was a meeting, I would hide-lurk in the hall until the meeting was about to begin because I was a very good girl, I would never be late.

"And then I'd walk in because I didn't know what to say to my boss, my peers, my colleagues.”

Then came an epiphany in her 30s.

"I thought, it was lonely, and it was empty, and I just wanted to connect. So, I started to watch people and I did some other things in my life, and I changed my life - I changed my life.”

As a shy, introverted person she would wait, in a social situation, for someone to approach her, she says.

“When I would be at a party I would think that there was a spotlight on me and everybody there knew I had no one to talk to.

“That is so self-centered and yet introverts, we’re nicer than the rest of the planet, but we are so self-centered that we think a roomful of people is looking at us.”

Introverts need to start assuming the burden of making other people feel comfortable, she says

“I look around the room, that's what I had to learn during my epiphany, and I always look for someone that I think is safe, but somebody standing by themselves looking like they don't have someone to talk to.”

She uses “free information” to kick start the conversation, she says.

“If I'm running a 5k and I’m waiting for the race to begin, I will assume the burden of turning to the person at my right and saying, Hey, have you done this before? Or what's your number one ingredient to training?

“It's based on free information.”

For some people such skills are intuitive, for others they must be learned, she says.

“I had to learn how to do it, I created a business and the only reason I created it is I used to think that dorky engineers like me would want to learn how to do it.”

There are some topics she avoids such as children and work, she says.

“So if I meet somebody at a school event I'll say so what keeps you busy outside of your kids, and they'll either talk about work, or they'll talk about fitness, or they'll talk about how they like to paint. And that's where the conversation will go.

“If I meet you at a conference, and I know that you work, I'll say what keeps you busy outside of your work. And that's how I get to know you. And you tell me what you want me to know, you tell me if you have kids, or you tell me if you like to paint or do yoga.”

Ending a conversation can be tricky, she uses a “white flag”. Show appreciation first, she says.

“I'm so glad to hear about your vacation, It sounds like fun, I just want to know the highlight of your vacation before I make my way around the room to catch up with some other friends. I've let you know, you're going to tell me the highlight of your vacation. And then I'm out of here.

“So, you can get out of this conversation with dignity, I'm going to take off in a minute, but before I go, tell me the highlight.”