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Published December 18, 2013, 05:07 PM

Positively Beautiful: Tips on making small talk

’Tis the season for holiday parties, and last week I found myself at a big function where I knew very few people.

By: Dr. Susan Mathison, INFORUM

’Tis the season for holiday parties, and last week I found myself at a big function where I knew very few people.

My husband intended to be there, but as I arrived toward the end of the party, I noticed his nametag was still at the check-in table. Turns out he had a last-minute issue to deal with, so I was on my own. Gulp …

I walked in and searched for a friendly face. One of my patients spotted me and came over to chat. She introduced me to her husband, and we had a lovely conversation.

I’m an introvert, and going to that party alone pushed my comfort zone. Even though I love people and my patients, I feel a little awkward making small talk. I don’t think I’ll be remembered for my witty commentary. Long ago, I took a college course on shyness, and got a few tips to help me navigate.

We all have cocktail parties, business conferences, networking events, family gatherings with relatives not seen in decades, and human encounters of all shapes and sizes. It turns out that small talk is important. And it doesn’t always have to be about the weather.

A study at the Stanford University School of Business tracked a group of MBAs 10 years after they graduated. GPAs did not predict their success, but conversational skills did. Those who had mastered the art of small talk made positive first impressions that opened doors.

Small talk might uncover common ground, business interests, friends you may share, or potential need for your product or service. Small talk can lead to bigger talks and lasting connections. Even among family, you might not know the details of their latest project.

Try these tips next time you are feeling like a wallflower at a party or business function or maybe even waiting in the check-out line:

E Make eye contact and smile. Never glance around the room while they are talking to you.

E Be the first to say, “Hello,” and reintroduce yourself if it’s someone who may not remember you. Offer a handshake and, “Hi there. I’m Sue Mathison. Good to see you again.” Hopefully they will restate their name as well, but if not, just be honest and say, “I’m so sorry, but I’ve blanked your name, even though I remember meeting you before.” People will usually forgive you up to four times.

E Match the depth and topic of conversation with the setting.

E Be Curious. Listen more than you talk. Think about how you might be a resource for this person.

E Ask a favorite question. “What’s your favorite Christmas movie?” works well this time of year. Mine is “Elf.” “What’s the best book you’ve read recently?” “Do you have a favorite quote at your desk?” Or ask them to share their favorite restaurant or vacation.

E Pop some pop culture. I feel like I am the only one in the country not watching “Mad Men,” “Modern Family” and “Downton Abbey,” but they are great conversation topics. I used to have a thing for “Castle,” the show and the guy, but I had to give up gory prime-time TV when my son Grant arrived.

E Try what if …

What if you could create your own job title? What if you could invite three people to dinner? Who would they be?

E Pick a topic of the day. “What do you think of ...?” “Have you heard ...?” “What is your take on ...?”

E Watch your posture and your body language. Don’t cross your arms over your chest. Confidence and a calm demeanor put others at ease, too. Be relaxed, have fun and let the conversation flow.

E Especially at a business or networking event, nobody likes to feel trapped in a long conversation. Make a graceful exit during a conversation lull, and check on another person or hit the buffet table.

E Never underestimate the power of a brief encounter.

I watched a TED talk describing a college student helping with freshman orientation. He had a brief conversation with students waiting to register. He cheerfully gave a lollipop to a young man in line and asked him to pass it on to the young lady behind him. Four years later, the speaker was contacted by the young lady. He had no memory of their visit. She described the impact that his friendliness had on her at a nervous moment. She also mentioned that she was marrying the young man she met via the lollipop that day.

Maya Angelou said, “People don’t always remember what you say or even what you do, but they always remember how you made them feel.”

Making connections might require some effort beyond your comfort zone, but they can also bring a new friend, a new job, and on occasion, serendipitous joy.

Dr. Susan Mathison founded Catalyst Medical Center in Fargo and created PositivelyBeautiful.com. Email her at shesays@forumcomm.com.

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