“How are you?” These are the three most useless words in the world of communication. The person asking doesn’t really want to know, and the person responding doesn’t tell the truth. What follows is a lost opportunity and meaningless exchange with zero connection.
But the key to making the most out of small talk, according to Harvard researchers, is to simply ask the other person follow-up questions. In a series of experiments, researchers analyzed more than 300 online conversations and found that those who were asked more meaningful follow-up questions (a.k.a. questions that aren’t “how are you?” or “what do you do?”), found the other person much more likable.
“When people are instructed to ask more questions, they are perceived as higher in responsiveness, an interpersonal construct that captures listening, understanding, validation and care,” the researchers wrote.
So how do you move from tongue-tied to being a charismatic and interesting person? It depends on the question you start with, and then you can focus on the stream of follow-up questions.
Here are seven tactics to having a meaningful conversation:
Use the A.C.T. trick to start a connection
When was the last time you were in a meeting that didn’t start with small talk? It’s a natural way for people to connect. Start with a question that will build up to a conversation that meets the A.C.T. criteria:
- A - There’s authenticity
- C - There’s a connection
- T - There’s a topic that will give them taste of who you are
Some of those questions might be:
- “What’s your current state of mind?”
- “What are you looking forward to this week?”
- “You remind me of a celebrity, but I can’t remember which one — who’s someone you relate to?”
Move beyond the “hourly update”
The fallback for a lot of people is like the newscast “hourly update” — traffic, sports, weather and so on.
Drill this into your head: It is a horrible icebreaker. There are a few exceptions, like if it’s a genuine interest of yours and your boss or colleague shares that passion. But try to move beyond those cliché topics to things that are more important and personal to you.
Be in the moment and observe your surroundings
Open your eyes before you open your mouth. Find something to focus on in your surroundings, like the piece of art on the wall, a quirky gadget or family picture on their desk, a race car helmet, scattered coins from various countries and so on. There’s bound to be something that will spark small talk and help lead the conversation into unique follow-up questions.
Let’s say you’re talking to the CEO of a large, iconic company who is about to retire, and you noticed a row of empty boxes along the wall of the CEO’s office. You might start with the question, “How hard is it for you to leave this job?” This will lead to a much deeper and more emotionally revealing discussion, and it never would’ve happened had you not noticed those boxes.
Share some news (that actually happened)
If you have “news,” share it: “I adopted a pet over the weekend” or “My 6-year-old rode a bike for the first time yesterday!” Believe it or not, most people actually do want to know more about others, especially if they both work at the same company.
If you’re new to a company and leading a team, for example, start your first meeting by going around the room and asking each person to say one interesting thing that recently happened in their lives. As a result of that momentary sharing, you’ve allowed everyone to feel more personally and genuinely connected with each other.
The objective to is be genuine and not simply make something up. Otherwise, you run the risk of not knowing how to answer follow-up questions about something you have little or no experience with.
Whether you’re meeting in person or dialing in for a conference call, talk early.
If you wait, two things will probably happen: One, someone else will make the comment you wanted to make and, two, your more talkative colleagues will take over with their own follow-up questions. You’ll get lost in the cross-talk and miss your chance.
It’s not just what you say
No matter what or how much you say, your tone of voice, facial expression and eye contact will broadcast so much more.
In person, look at the other person when you speak, not at the conference table or the wall. On the phone, smile — it will make your voice sound warmer. It’s not just what you say, but how you say it, that will help others connect with you.
Make the pivot
This is where small talk goes to the next level, as you segue from talking about something small to the issue at hand.
If the conversation is already flowing, it will be easier than you think and ask follow-up questions. Your boss could be the one to make the first step, “So, tell me what’s going on with [X].” Thanks to the small talk, you’ll already be in sync. You can then pivot to a more meaningful discussion that showcases your knowledge, contribution and confidence.
Just do it
For introverts, small talk can be painful. But if you say nothing in those moments before a meeting starts or when you and your boss are in the elevator, you run the risk of becoming invisible.
First, give yourself a break. Almost everyone is intimidated by others, especially those who outrank them. (I remember feeling self-conscious when I met with a four-star general at the Pentagon. And again feeling that way in a meeting with Britain’s then-Prime Minister David Cameron. But I took a deep breath and spoke up anyway.) It’s natural to defer to authority. You are who you are, and no one is expecting a soliloquy out of you. But when you make an effort to speak up, others will listen and connect with you.
A version of this article appears on CNBC.com.