Standing uncomfortably in the kitchen at his sister’s baby shower, Brandon tries to make conversation with his brother-in-law’s cousin.
“Did you hit traffic driving here today?” he asked her.
“I did,” she answered. “I came on Rt. 95, and traffic was OK since it’s Saturday. How about you?”
“Ah, well, I only live three streets over so it was a pretty easy trip for me today,” Brandon answered with a chuckle. He felt gratified by her slight laugh in response. As the natural pause in the conversation elongated, Brandon grasped for a new topic to continue the conversation. As he did so, his brother-in-law’s cousin suddenly said, “Excuse me,” and moved away.
Uncomfortable yet again, Brandon scanned the room to see who else he could try to talk with. “Geez, this is so much work. How do other people make it look so easy?” he wondered.
If you’ve found yourself in more than a few situations like Brandon’s, you are not alone. Many, many people struggle to make chitchat with people. There are 3 main reasons why some folks struggle more than others when it comes to chitchatting with someone you don’t know well.
3 Main Reasons People Struggle With Small Talk
- Being an introvert. As an introvert, you recharge your energy by being alone and you expend more energy than most people when socializing. So you may not enjoy chatting with strangers and acquaintances as much as you could, simply because it’s tiring for you. On top of that, you may have put yourself in fewer social situations to learn small talk skills.
- Being an empath or Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). As an empath or HSP, you are highly tuned in to what other people are thinking and feeling and needing. You think deeply and you feel deeply. You take much more enjoyment from conversations that have depth and purpose, so small talk may feel unrewarding at best or like a waste of time at worst. It simply feels like something you’d rather not bother with. Which is fine… up until you really have to do it.
- Being an adult who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN. Emotionally neglectful families may provide their children with some good things in life, but they lack one vital ingredient: emotional substance. Because CEN families are blind to the world of emotion, many CEN families seldom talk about anything meaningful or important; and some seldom talk at all. This makes it hard for CEN adults to differentiate between small talk and meaningful talk. Where’s the line? What’s it OK to say when chatting with a stranger? Situations that call for these skills may seem too unpleasant to take on. Some CEN folks have referred to them as “frightening.”
Labeling casual conversation as a chitchat or small talk actually does it a disservice. It is true that most such exchanges are simply time fillers, it’s important to note that almost all significant, lasting connections of every kind begin with chitchat. So, in a way, it is the most basic foundation for all human relationships.
I think that on some level, most people sense the importance of small talk. And that is a major factor in making it scary, for sure. Let’s check in with Brandon and find out how he learned to small talk.
How Brandon Learned to Small Talk
Brandon came to therapy with me because he had been struggling with some depression and anxiety. He had read a number of self-help books and had determined that he is an introvert, an HSP, and a product of Childhood Emotional Neglect. In fact, he had scored a 19 on the Emotional Neglect Test. Brandon was hoping I could help him figure out what was causing his occasional bouts of depression. He had also just started a new job that would require him to network and he was feeling very anxious about it.
“This is my worst nightmare. It’s giving me a serious case of dread,” he declared. So I taught him the art of Vertical Questioning.
Horizontal Questions: Involve information gathering. Examples: What did you do? Where did you go? What was the traffic like? How was the weather? How many did you buy? Horizontal questions involve facts.
Vertical Questions: The process of hooking into a casual, horizontal comment from someone and taking it to a more interesting, introspective, meaningful, or personal place.
So, when Brandon went to his first networking event, we had prepared him. We had practiced Vertical Questioning in my office, and had reframed this event from “nightmare” to “an opportunity to practice.”
Here’s an example of a conversation he told me about later. He and a guy at the meeting had been discussing what company they each worked for.
Brandon: How long have you worked there?
Collin: I’m pretty new, actually. I’ve only been here for 6 months.
Note: This is Brandon’s point of decision. Normally, he would go horizontal here and ask Collin where he worked before and the conversation would fizzle out. Instead, he asked a vertical question that’s slightly more psychological.
Brandon: Oh, really? Has it been an easy company to adjust to? Some companies are easier than others, don’t you think?
Collin: Oh, man, you have no idea. This company has been so nice. The reason I left my last job was the atmosphere. It was super competitive and there was no sense of teamwork. It felt like everyone was out for themselves.
As you can see, Collin’s answer leaves it open for Brandon to share his own prior experience with a cutthroat type of work environment. This is what he did and the 10-minute chat was genuine and memorable. In fact, Brandon and Collin remembered each other when they ran into each other a year later.
Months later, after Brandon had been practicing vertical questioning at work, he had a date with a young woman, Stephanie, he had been texting with for several weeks. He had met her on a dating app, and this was the first time they would meet in person.
Brandon had a history of failing to connect on first dates, and he was having some anxiety and dread about the meeting. In my office, we practiced vertical questioning to prepare him. Here’s what happened after they had met at a bar and ordered a drink.
Stephanie: So, tell me about yourself. What do you like to do?
What Brandon would have said before: I work a lot. On weekends, I run and hike and I’m a movie buff so I like to see every movie when it first comes out.
What Brandon says now that he understands how to make a conversation vertical: I work a lot and I really like my job so that’s OK with me. On weekends, I’m usually kinda tired but running really clears my head. I’ll run for miles on Saturdays sometime and as I run I can just feel myself relaxing and the stress draining. It sets me up for a good weekend. Are you a runner?
Stephanie: I used to run, but then I hurt my Achilles playing soccer so I had to stop sports to let it heal. I’m into swimming now because it does for me what running does for you. It clears my head and, believe me, I often need it.
Brandon: Is your job stressful? Or is it something else that you need to calm down from?
As you can see from this brief exchange, this conversation is going somewhere. By sharing something more psychological with Stephanie, Brandon gave her the message that this conversation is going to be meaningful and that it’s OK for her to share too. Stephanie responded to this by sharing something herself. Instead of talking horizontally about activities, they are poised to discuss what each finds stressful in their lives.
How Vertical Questioning Transformed Brandon’s Relationships
Practicing Vertical Questioning essentially taught Brandon what he had missed learning in his emotionally neglectful childhood home: the difference between facts and feelings. Gradually, through practice, he had become more comfortable going where his family seldom went.
Brandon used this skill not only at work and on dates but also with his friend group and his sister. He and his sister started talking more and getting closer, and a few of his friendships started to change and become less group-based and more individual. They became more warm, supportive and connected.
Little by little, Brandon’s relationships changed. Little by little, by practicing Vertical Questioning, Brandon changed his life.
Learn much more about emotions in relationships, how Childhood Emotional Neglect silently and invisibly squelches your emotional connections with others, and how to learn the art of deepening your relationships in the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships. (link to the book in the bio below this article)
To learn much more about Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), how it happens, how it affected you as a child, how it stays with you through your adult life and how to heal see the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect (link to the book below this article).
Watch for a future post that is all examples of horizontal and vertical questioning. Coming soon!