Based on research, people in general are happier and have a greater sense of well-being the less time they spend alone. A recent study adds to that understanding. People who engage in more meaningful conversations, rather than small talk, have a greater sense of well-being. But small talk may be the path to having those deeper conversations. You may need to have small talk to move on to closer relationships.
For emotionally sensitive people, this is a difficult issue. Small talk can seem meaningless. Engaging in small talk, unpleasant for most, can feel as miserable as a migraine for the emotionally sensitive. Yet it’s not likely that you can meet a new friend for coffee and then immediately discuss your shame about the affair you had last year or even how inadequate you feel around the have-it-all-together neighbors. It happens, but it’s not likely.
Small talk is a way of acknowledging other people, letting them know they matter. Small talk also seems to be a necessary gateway to deeper conversations, much like the dreaded first dates are a way to see if there is potential for a romantic relationship.
If you want to have more friends in your life, small talk is like a welcome mat and a compatibility test. Small talk is the foundation for more meaningful connections. Maybe it feels the same as having to clean the house, get the groceries, and put on make-up for company. The preparation is work, though usually after an enjoyable evening you see it all as worth it. Maybe that’s the way it is with small talk. It only seems worth it when you have connected with someone on a deeper level. Then you’re glad you went to that mixer or neighborhood get-together.
For most, small talk is only the beginning, and connecting through deeper conversation is the desired goal. So if you’re willing to take a deep breath and trudge through the uncomfortableness of the short-term, you can then see who fits well with you and move on to deeper conversations.
So the first step is being willing to engage in small talk. If you’re willing, then what do you do? Chit chat is a skill that can be learned. Here are a few ideas, and remember, practice is important.
1. Watch your body language. People believe body language over what you say. If you express that you are happy to meet them but your face looks terrified or you are as tense as someone waiting for surgery, they aren’t going to believe your words. Plus they are likely to sense your tension, be uncomfortable and more than likely eager to move on. Practice with friends to get a relaxed body posture and a welcoming smile.
2. Limit the information you give in one turn of talking. Some people have the gift of gab. They can talk for hours without stopping. Effective conversation, even small talk, is reciprocal. Limit yourself to three to five sentences and pause for the other person to contribute.
3. Contribute to the conversation. On the other hand, if you are a person of few words, listen carefully to what the other person is saying. Ask questions or make a comment, even they are describing a movie or a television show or a dinner at a restaurant. You are communicating interest in the other person by learning what they like and dislike.
4. Have patience to let relationships build naturally. Sharing that you are seething because you got a bad job review earlier that day is not likely to be comfortable for someone you just met. Because your emotions are intense, it’s often difficult to not talk about what you are feeling. It can feel “fake” to not do that. But over-sharing about difficulties will not build effective relationships and is likely to give the other person a limited view of who you are. You are so much more than the disappointment that happened that day. Use skills to manage your emotions.
5. Be authentic. You can show curiosity about ballroom dancing or marathon training without wanting to do it yourself. If you disagree, use validation to acknowledge that you understand the other person’s view.
6. Share your interests. If you like to read, talk about a book you read. If you’ve read a book about history maybe give some information that you learned in the book. Have in mind some topic areas that you could bring up–movies, cooking, sports, stories about your dog, volunteering, or whatever you like to do.
7. Let go of judgments. Fear usually increases judgments and judgments will in turn increase emotions. Let go of judgments of yourself and others. Expect that finding someone you really connect with will not be easy or fast.
8. Focus on the purpose. In the short term, communicating to others that they matter is worthwhile. In the long run, finding new friends is rewarding.
Seligman, M. Authentic Happiness. New York: Free Press, 2003.
Note to Readers: Healing Hearts of Families is a Houston conference for those with borderline personality disorder and their families and friends. Please join us on November 10 for informative presentations by experts in the field.
My sincere thanks to everyone who has completed our second survey. If you haven’t participated, please consider answering the survey questions about being emotionally sensitive.
To learn more about validation, read The Power of Validation.