difficult conversation

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Better Small Talk" by Patrick King. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you ever get stuck in the shallow pool of small talk? Would you like to learn how to take conversations into deeper territory?

Small talk is an excellent way to start a conversation. But, if it stays there, the conversation can feel shallow and pointless. Social interaction specialist Patrick King shares some practical tips for transitioning from small talk to meaningful conversation.

Read more to learn how to get past small talk and make the most of your interactions.

How to Get Past Small Talk

Once you’ve made some small talk and sense that the other person is interested in engaging further, you can work on moving the conversation forward. King offers his advice on how to get past small talk, stressing that you must become adept at transitioning to and exploring new topics if you want to keep a conversation going. If you remain stuck on one topic, the conversation will quickly become boring, and one of you will likely end it. 

(Shortform note: It’s important to not misinterpret King’s recommendation to transition to new topics once you’ve covered old ones as a recommendation to fill every silence with chatter. Some people are so anxious about keeping the conversation going that they fill every conversational lull with—usually inane—talk. This is different from transitioning to new topics because it’s fueled by a fear of silence, rather than a desire to sustain dialogue, and often doesn’t lead to enjoyable conversation. Pauses in your conversation aren’t necessarily a sign that the conversation has stalled; rather, they may actually give both parties the necessary moment to think about how they want to transition to the next topic.)

Here are some ways King recommends to keep the conversation moving forward: 

Tip #1: Find Similarities to Talk About

The best topic to turn to after you’ve made some small talk is things you have in common. Finding similarities strengthens your connection: King says that humans have a strong evolutionary urge to be around people similar to themselves because they’re more likely to be understood. 

To find similarities, be alert for even small areas of overlap that might lead you to discover larger similarities. If you discover that you both frequent the same bookstore, asking further questions might lead you to learn that you’re both fans of the same author, for instance. You may have to probe a bit if immediate similarities aren’t apparent. For example, if the other person is an avid hiker and you’ve never hiked before, ask them questions about hiking that could reveal similarities. They might tell you they love hiking in a particular area, which happens to be where you grew up. 

What to Do When There’s No Common Ground

What if you find yourself in conversation with someone you can’t imagine having anything in common with? As the United States becomes increasingly politically polarized, it’s becoming harder for people on one side of the political spectrum to feel they could ever find common ground with people on the other side.

In Think Again, social scientist Adam Grant proposes a solution to this perception of irreconcilable difference: We should complexify our discussions. By this, he means exploring or showing a spectrum of views on a topic, rather than just two opposing views. In conversation, you could complexify a discussion with someone you’d normally disagree with by talking about individual cases where one of your perspectives might not hold or make sense.

For instance, if you’re an avid recycler and you’re speaking to someone who hates recycling, you might talk about instances when recycling isn’t a good idea (like when the material you’re recycling is hazardous) and instances when recycling actually is a good idea (like when you’re recycling something that can easily be repurposed to create a new product). To move the conversation toward complexification and away from outright disagreement, you might use King’s advice to probe into your conversation partner’s answers, leading them to think more complexly. 

Tip #2: Memorize Acronyms That Advance the Conversation

King also recommends memorizing nine different types of responses you can make to a comment. Each approach can lead you into new conversational territory, and they’re represented by three acronyms:

HPM: History, Philosophy, Metaphor. History entails contributing a story from your personal history. Philosophy entails offering an opinion or personal philosophy on the topic. Metaphor entails going farther afield, bringing up something the topic reminds you of. 

SBR: Specific, Broad, Related. Specific entails asking a more detailed question about something said. Broad means asking a more general question. Related entails moving in a slightly different direction to ask about something tangential (if you’re talking about the croissant you’re both eating, a related question might be to ask if the other person’s ever been to France or if they like to bake themselves). 

(Shortform note: It’s worth noting that not all of these response types will be appropriate for every conversation. SBR, which involves asking questions of the other person, might be better for conversations with people who are experiencing personal difficulty. When you ask specific, broad, and related questions of them, you can better understand what they’re experiencing and how you might help. HPM, on the other hand, might be more useful when you’re getting to know a new acquaintance or group, especially if you’re someone who tends to speak up less in conversation. If you know that you can reach for history, philosophy, or metaphor to keep the conversation going, it will be easier for you to think of topics to engage the other person.) 

EDR: Emotion, Detail, Restatement. Emotion means positing what you think the other person’s feelings were about something they just said (“Going to Paris must have been incredible!”). Detail means asking for more detail specifically in relation to the other person. (“How did you like the Renoir paintings in the Louvre?”) Restatement simply entails restating what the other person just said to show them you’re listening and encourage them to elaborate (“The painting had been stolen?!”).

(Shortform note: Of all the acronyms, this one might require you to pay the most attention to the other person. This is because you must be able to make a feasible prediction of how they felt about something, pick up on small details of their story, and restate what they’ve just said with reasonable accuracy. If EDR seems hard to execute, you might consider strengthening your listening muscle by focusing exclusively on what the other person is saying without pre-planning your response in your mind.) 

Tip #3: Free-Associate to Explore New Topics

At times and despite your best efforts, your conversation might still stagnate. In such cases, King recommends you continue the conversation by free-associating with the existing conversation topic. Free-associating means summoning to mind and mentioning the first thing (or a few things) you think of in relation to the topic. This can move the conversation into new, fertile ground. 

For instance, if you’ve both run out of things to say, but you just ate a McDonald’s burger, free associate with “McDonald’s.” Perhaps McDonald’s makes you think of the plastic toys you get in a happy meal, that trip you took with your parents when you were eight, and the pricey steak you had at a five-star restaurant last weekend. Any of these ideas is a viable direction to take the conversation in.

(Shortform note: Free-associating is a common warm-up exercise in improvisational comedy and theater. It helps performers become less judgmental of themselves and freer in their responses. Another improv exercise you might repurpose to improve your conversations is the game and concept of “Yes And.” When you “yes and” someone, you agree with what they’ve said and then add something new to it. For instance, if they say, “This hamburger tastes like cardboard,” you might say: “I agree, and the fries taste like crayons.” This naturally shifts the conversation into new and interesting territory.)

How to Get Past Small Talk: 3 Tips From a Social Interaction Expert

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Patrick King's "Better Small Talk" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Better Small Talk summary:

  • Why small talk is a critical part of any conversation
  • How mastering small talk can help you have more meaningful conversations
  • How to become a better conversationalist, storyteller, and listener

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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