Active Listening: An Underrated Superpower

Active listening is probably the conversational skill Millennials are the most sorely lacking in. Somewhere along the way, we stopped listening, stopped caring about listening, and thus stopped knowing how to listen. There is nothing that will help your small talk more than active listening.


When we truly listen—making appropriate eye contact—the other person feels at ease in the conversation. They feel you actually care what they have to say. Think back to the last time you were talking to someone who clearly did not care what you had to say and was just waiting for their turn to talk. They may even have interrupted you to insert their thought. That’s not a conversation both of you enjoy; it’s one-sided.


Learning the importance of listening involves some humility. It involves thinking more highly of the other person and what they have to say than you would otherwise. Even if they are saying something completely inane that they have said a thousand times before, try to listen as though at any moment they may say something life changing. They’re saying what they’re saying for a reason; if it’s an enigma to you, asking questions to figure out why it’s important to them.


The secret to effective listening is concentration. At first, it will take enormous concentration to become a better listener in conversation. Over time, though, it will develop into a habit. If it helps, think of your attention as a laser beam. A giant, red laser beam, like when Cyclops from X-Men takes off his visor. Like your attention, the laser has to be controlled, or it’s all over the place. You need to focus it on the person who is talking to you. Always, always focus on that person, and try to ignore everything else going on.


When I was learning how to be better at conversation, I would observe how the average person reacts when interrupted by an external stimulus. Sometimes I would see it coming and watch with anticipation. For example, Person A is involved in a conversation and, unbeknownst to them, one of their buddies, Person B, shows up. Person B walks over and says hi, and I observe how surprised Person A is to see them. What they say, their tone, their volume, and their gesturing. Nowadays, most of the time I’m the “Person A” being interrupted by the external stimulus. The difference between the two comes down to one thing: Concentration. Nowadays, after learning this lesson, instead of observing others, I generally don’t care what everyone else is doing because I’m focused on the person I’m talking to. In fact, I might even react with slight annoyance if interrupted by something or someone, depending on who or what it is. Guess what? That’s what everyone else has doing all along.


The Importance of Eye Contact

Eye contact is trickier than listening, I will admit. It’s usually not hard to make eye contact with a close friend or family member, because you are usually relaxed around that person. After all, important signals are sent through the eyes, and you don’t want to miss them. However, with people you are not as comfortable around, it’s harder.


Concentration is also the key to improving eye contact. However, don’t think of it in the laser beam way. Think of it as being so absorbed with the conversation that you are dying to know the next thing they have to say. In fact, even if it’s a conversation you hate, it may still be in your best interest to do this because they may say something that gives you an out. Crude, but true. But back to most conversations, which you (hopefully) don’t hate, you will find yourself staring full-force into their eyes, yet not in a creepy way. The kind of staring into their eyes that I am talking about is essentially mining them for conversation. They will keep talking and eventually say something that spurs a response from you. When responding, you’ll keep staring into their eyes because you’re trying to communicate at full blast what you want to say as efficiently as possible, and using eye contact in combination with all other verbal and non-verbal methods is the most efficient way to do this.


Additionally, a key element is to clear your mind while you listen and don’t spend any time thinking of what you are going to say next. Turn your mind into a blank slate that has no thoughts. When you have this blank-slate approach, you are fully present with that person, and they can tell you’re actively listening, including eye contact. Don’t worry, when it’s your turn to talk, you’ll be able to think of what to say in response or you’ll simply stream-of-consciousness something and it’ll most likely work out just as well. Trust the process and don’t think ahead of what to say while you should be listening. I can’t emphasize this point enough.


If all else fails, and you simply cannot make yourself maintain eye contact with the other person, cut your losses and look down the entire conversation, as long as you are actively listening and using fillers (more on that below). This is actually pretty effective in networking conversations because it is often so loud at networking happy hours and events that it looks like you’re simply trying to have your ear face them to hear better. However, the goal is to work your way up to being comfortable maintaining eye contact with anyone.


Conversational Fillers

Conversational fillers are the small phrases and sounds of acknowledgment peppered throughout a conversation that let the other person know you’re still paying attention. Examples include, “Uh-huh,” “mm-hmm,” “right,” “OK,” and others. Most people use these; you should too. The great thing about them is that active listening—intense concentration on what the other person is saying—will cause you to automatically know when a filler is needed. You will have a gut feeling, and at first you may consciously need to think to yourself, “There’s that feeling…quick, say ‘uh-huh’!” But as you improve, it will become habit and you won’t have to think about it. You will just use a filler reflexively.


A word of advice: Alternate your fillers every couple of uses. Don’t use “uh-huh” six times in a row, or you will sound like a robot. Throw in some other fillers. When you are on the receiving end of fillers—for example, telling a story—notice how good you feel when the other person periodically uses a filler. It tells you they’re still interested in what you have to say. If they don’t use them, you feel like they’re not really listening. These are the same reactions people will have toward you depending on whether or not you use fillers.


Below is a fictitious example of how to use fillers:

PETE: So the other day I was in the checkout line at Whole Foods and this guy behind me starts talking about how he had someone come out to look at his roof…

ME: Uh-huh.

PETE: …and he said the guy gets there, sets up the ladder, climbs up onto the roof, and he’s barely up there for two minutes before he comes down and takes down the ladder…

ME: Uh-huh.

PETE: and he said the guy goes right up to him and says it’s going to cost almost twice what he quoted him earlier that same day to do the work. I mean, he didn’t literally say “twice”, but the amount he quoted was basically double what he originally said.

ME: Right.

PETE: So then he said they got into this huge argument and his wife came out and had to essentially break them up and the contractor cussed him out and he was totally shocked.

ME: Oh snap!

PETE: And that contractor had been recommended by a friend. Soooo he said it’s back to online reviews to find someone else for the roof.

ME: Ha ha ha…yup.


Whenever anyone tells a story, it’s pretty much inevitable that fillers can and should be used by someone in the audience. Maybe if it’s a group conversation and there is a total social butterfly present, you can sit back and let that person do all the fillers. But if you are the main audience, be sure to use fillers. Like I said, the more you practice, you will begin using them without realizing it.


So to review: Active listening is like a laser beam of concentration, so point it at the target; maintain eye contact by wiping your mind of thoughts and being a blank slate so you can hang on their every word; and use conversational fillers until they’re natural because they let the other person know you’re still listening.

How to Make Small Talk: Rules 1 & 2

This is the last installment in the 10 Rules of Small Talk series. I hope you have enjoyed these posts and found them helpful. I will posting more about small talk rules & tips in the future!


Rule #2: Keep it Light: Avoid Certain Topics when Making Small Talk

According to conventional wisdom, religion and politics are the two things you should never discuss in casual conversation (Charles Schultz added the Great Pumpkin to the list). This rule usually applies, but really it depends why you are there. People break this rule all the time, and it can be a painful, agonizing thing to behold, and even worse to have to directly respond to. I will cover how to get out of such situations in future posts, but here, I want to drive home the importance of this rule.

Think back to your own experience. When was the last time a conversation got unexpectedly serious? It’s not a pleasant feeling, is it? It totally kills the energy. I can’t count how many conversations I was in in 2016 where the presidential election came up. I also can’t think of a bigger conversational minefield, and I would simply nod and use the “mm-hmm” and “uh-huh” conversational fillers, while being inwardly disappointed with the person for not being able to find a more creative and inclusive conversational topic. When the election came up, no matter which candidate the other person supported, the predictable litany of complaints about the opposing candidate would ensue. This kind of scenario wrecks any good conversation unless you get lucky and are talking to someone with similar political views. Conversations with strangers, however, are a big gamble with these topics, so the word to the wise is to not go there.

Now, as a Christian, I sometimes bring up my faith in a casual conversation with a stranger. We are expected to want to share the gospel message with others. However, it’s something that needs to be done with caution, consideration, and prayer, in order to maximize the effectiveness.

Whoever came up with the rule about religion and politics did not pick those topics because of the topics themselves. They picked them because the topics have a way of turning a conversation unexpectedly serious and even negative. People have widely varying and often emotional views on such subjects. So, keep it light so that the other person feels no negative emotions and will want to keep talking to you. Even if you’re just trying to fill a short period of time with something other than awkward silence, you don’t want to leave the other person with a bad impression. You might run into them again.

Going back to our example of being in the dentist office from the earlier post, if instead of saying you were there for an annual cleaning and then asking the other person what they were there for, if you instead started going on and on about your recent root canal and how painful it was, you have turned the conversation negative and it will wither. People don’t want to hear someone else complain. One rule people often teach about dating is to avoid saying anything negative. That generally applies here too, unless you are commiserating with the other person. That can be the right response at times, but most conversations should stay light.


Rule #1: Improving Will Take Effort at First but Will Become Easier

At first, it will take conscious effort and concentration to improve your small talk skills. However, I promise it will get easier. You may even end up enjoying it, if nothing else than for the challenge. Sometimes when someone starts making small talk with me, I realize that the conversational chess match has begun. If this is how you have to think of small talk in order to get comfortable with it until it feels more natural, so be it. It can be fun to see how long you can make it before one of you makes the first social blunder and breaks “the rules” of small talk. In the end, however, what matters is that both of you come away with a positive social experience, although the best conversations are those in which no one breaks the rules.


Anyone can get better at small talk. Not everyone can realistically get better at a given skill, sport, trade, or craft. It may be due to time constraints, physical reasons, or other factors. However, the opportunities for small talk are around us constantly, and it’s a skill we will need for the rest of our lives. Decide to embrace small talk, armed with these rules, which have given you the initial strategies, techniques, and mindset shifts you need to get started. We are, by design, social creatures, so it’s only natural to be able to carry on a conversation with a stranger. We usually aren’t taught how to do it, though—we are just expected to learn by example. I devised these rules for anyone who needs help beyond that. Again, I emphasize that this is something anyone can do and get good at.

How to Make Small Talk: Rules 3-5

Continuing my series on the 10 Rules of Small Talk, explaining the fundamentals of what small talk is and how to do it well, here are rules 3-5!


Rule #5: Small Talk Can Help You Acquire Important Knowledge

Your conversations with random people can be a great source of information. In fact, sometimes you should strategically seek out such conversations. That is one of the main purposes of networking events, but the principle applies elsewhere as well. If you want to know what people think about something that is of immediate interest to both you and them, ask them. You don’t even need to start off with a greeting if you ask you question skillfully. For example, say you are not up on the weather and you look out the window and see dark clouds, and you already know it’s cold outside. If it snows, you could have a bear of a commute home, so you ask a coworker, “Think it’ll snow?” She then says, “Well, I heard on the radio that…” Voila, free knowledge. That is a relatively low-reward example, but the idea scales.

The other side of this is that it’s often impossible to know what knowledge a conversation might yield, especially a group conversation. Maybe you will hear about an interesting commercial development on the other side of town. Maybe they are putting a new chain restaurant that you love, or a fun attraction. You might not have otherwise known for months until you happened to drive through that part of town. Maybe you will get a good stock tip, if you trade stocks. Maybe you will hear about a great new book that intrigues you (“word of mouth” marketing).

Maybe you will hear an interesting tidbit that you can repeat in future conversations. Maybe you will learn something new about a mutual friend, such as the fact that he has a pickup truck and you’ve been looking for someone to haul something. Maybe you will learn that a mutual friend is good at a skill or craft that you would like to either pay them for or ask them to teach you. Maybe you’re in a band and looking for a drummer, and you hear that a mutual friend plays drums. Maybe the mutual friend just bought something you are thinking of buying, and hates it. Then you know you should go talk to them and get the scoop.

While you never know what you can learn, if you approach conversations optimistically, and therefore fully engage, you might learn something that could enhance your life, aside from the social fulfillment that the conversation provides.


Rule #4: Small Talk has Numerous Social Uses Other than Conversing with the Other Person

The worst position you can be in at a party or networking event is to be—repeat this with me—by yourself. True, if you are staring at your phone while by yourself, you might look important, like maybe your job needs something and they emailed you. But if you stand there long enough, people will figure out that you are on social media because you are too shy to talk to anyone, and they will think you are lame. That’s the hard truth.

So you see that small talk with a random stranger is always better than standing or sitting around doing nothing, or on your phone, or making proverbial trips to the punch bowl. I know it’s not easy to talk to random strangers, but unless it is at a socially acceptable point for you to leave, you have to if you don’t know anyone there or if all your friends are busy. Plus, you should be wanting to challenge yourself to get something out of the party or event, even if it is merely brownie points with your significant other who dragged you there. Or perhaps the chance to build confidence with someone of the opposite sex if you don’t have a significant other! A great conversation starter is to ask someone how they know the person who invited you to the party.

Another use for small talk is if you are trying to avoid someone who is at the same party or event. Maybe it’s that friend who talks your ear off every time they get the chance. If you are tied up in a conversation with someone else, they can’t get you. Maybe there is someone who likes you and is stalking you, whom you do not like in return. Again, being tied up in a conversation can keep them away.

If you are at a party, you are on your own leisure time and yeah, if you really want to, you can burn some social capital by looking like a loner and not talking to anyone. I don’t advise it, but if you really wanted to, you could. However, if you are at a networking event, doing this is basically insta-death because everyone is forming impressions about everyone around them at all times. It only takes one social faux pas to show that you are not all you are cracked up to be in that suit. That’s a lot of pressure, but you should go into networking events knowing that that is how the game is played. It’s all about fulfilling social expectations and impressing everyone. Why do you think everyone hates networking events (although they love the free booze)? People don’t go to networking events for fun; they only go to them because it is in their self-interest to go. If you get good at small talk though, you can ace networking events because no social obstacle will stump you.


Rule #3: Look for the Perfect Thing to Say Until It Becomes Habit

At first, like I said in rule #8, your small talk may seem mechanical while you improve, but there are ways to handle it. And like in rules 10 and 9, there is a small pool of “right things” you can choose from when choosing how to reply in a conversation. The goal is to become so well-accustomed to picking something from the pool of “right things” that it becomes habit. Trust me, you will develop an intuition for what is a right thing and what isn’t, and your right choices will be reinforced over time. In addition, you will repeat many of the same things in different conversations with different people, which is an underestimated but very useful tactic. You will learn what kinds of responses would be too far removed from what you are replying to and avoid using those responses. You will learn what things you can say that almost always work as quick & easy “comebacks” that keep the conversation energized. The more you execute these behaviors, they more they will become automatic, the less lag time you will have thinking of what to say, and the easier small talk will become.

I said “perfect thing” in the title of this rule. This is not the same thing as the pool of “right things”. The goal is to become so good at replying with a right thing that is consistently feels perfect, which is a great feeling. You will leave conversations thinking to yourself, “Man, that was a well-executed conversation,” or some variation thereof.


Stay turned for rules 1 & 2!

How to Make Small Talk: Rules 6-9

A few posts ago are started a series about how to become better at making small talk. I covered rule #10 of my Ten Rules of Small Talk, which has to with the fact that there is a limited number of good options you can reply with at any point in a conversation, and your goal is to pick one of those options. Now, I will go into rules six through nine.


Rule #9: If You Aren’t Good at Small Talk, it is Obvious

This is probably the most painful truth about small talk. Have you ever tried to strike up a conversation with someone who spends all their time playing video games and has no social skills? It’s painful, difficult, and usually not worth it. People avoid small talk when it is clear the other person doesn’t want to participate or doesn’t know how. Perhaps you can recall a conversation where it was going well, but you said something you thought was a normal response, and the conversation fell flat. In that moment, did you feel that the other person was better at socializing than you? If so, then perhaps the problem lay in whatever you said. You said something that was not in the pool of “right things,” and the other person did not know what to say in response because none of the “usual options” would have worked. The “usual options” are the things that are supposed to work, and that’s why small talk is able to continue. But by saying something that wasn’t the “right thing,” you interrupted the flow of the conversation and inadvertently killed the energy. You may have really liked the person. Perhaps it was someone you would have liked to date. Maybe you thought about it later and wondered what happened. The good news is that you are not alone! I’ve certainly been there and so have many others.


Rule #8: If Your Small Talk is Mechanical, it is Also Obvious

It is practically unavoidable that when you first start out trying to improve your small talk, it will seem a little mechanical. Your best option is to practice with people who are so friendly that they either won’t notice or won’t care. If you are at a party, pick someone who is known for their niceness. Other options include picking someone whom you are not attracted to, in order to take the pressure off. Or you can pick someone you know you will never see again, so that if it’s awkward it won’t matter. There are multiple ways to provide insurance for potentially awkward small talk practice. Pick one or several!


Rule #7: Small Talk Should Sometimes Consider What the Other Person Would Enjoy Hearing

This is similar to the principle of “right things” to say but goes in a slightly different direction. Try to make the other person happy. Avoid trite phrases and clichés that would annoy you if someone said them to you. Avoid trying to control the emotions of the other person by playing things up or down, since you wouldn’t want to be manipulated either. Avoid cop-out statements like “I don’t know anything whatsoever about ______,” which could be taken as you trying to get out of the conversation. Instead, try saying, “I don’t know much about ______, but what makes you think [whatever they said]?” The point is, observe the Golden Rule and do unto others. You would want to leave a conversation happier than when you entered it, so try to make sure it turns out that way for the other person, and they will remember that they enjoyed talking to you.


Rule #6: Small Talk Skills are Expected

Extroverts expect that they will be able to initiate small talk with you and you then reciprocate. Many extroverts don’t understand what extrovert vs. introvert means, and even if they did, you often can’t tell just by looking at someone which of the two they are. So, it will not occur to extroverts that you may not enjoy small talk until they have tried to converse with you. For example, if you are sitting in the dentist’s office and the person sitting next to you asks what you are there for, if you just reply with “A cleaning,” it will shut down the conversation and the other person may get their feelings hurt, may think “Whoa, what’s wrong with him/her,” or both. But, if you instead respond with, “I’m getting my annual cleaning. You?” you have perpetuated the conversation and proven you have at least some small talk skills.

Another possible scenario to illustrate this principle is if you are at a networking event and there are two other people, and one of them leaves to use the restroom. You are left standing there with the other person, who maybe you have not talked to yet because you had been talking to the person who just excused himself. At this point you can either do what Millennials do way too often, which is to take a sip of your drink and dig your phone out, hoping against hope that the other person does the same, or you can start a conversation with that person. If you don’t talk to them, think how lame you will look to the person who left when he comes back from the restroom and finds you both staring at your phones. He will think to himself, “this person has some social skills because he was able to talk to me, but obviously not enough skills to talk to this other person while I was gone.” He will feel as though you depend on him to have a meaningful conversation at the event, which puts him in an uncomfortable position, and unless you are buddies or there is something he wants from you, he will find an excuse to go talk to someone else who is more sociable. However, if he comes back and you are conversing with the other person instead of looking at your phone, you have now shown two people that you have social skills, and the person who left is more likely to want to keep talking to you. Plus, since there is another conversation going on, they now have the opportunity to wait for a moment to jump in that is convenient for them. It’s a win-win for everyone.

The 10 Rules of Small Talk: Intro & Rule #10

Millennials today have a small talk problem. That problem is that far too many of us don’t know how to make small talk. We are too used to being able to retreat to our devices. For example, how many times have you been at a social gathering and one or more people are, during a group conversation, checked out and starting at their smartphones? Before smartphones, this was not possible, and those sitting at the table had to at least pay attention to the conversation. I define small talk as generally inconsequential conversations on light topics, leading either to social enjoyment or to fulfillment of unwritten social obligations. That’s a mouthful, but I think it captures the sometimes enjoyable, sometimes obligatory nature of small talk. Love it or hate it, it is a reality we must get used to. The good news, it is way easier to become better at small talk than you think.


For most of my life, I generally was not very good at small talk. Things changed when I started attending classes at George Washington University in D.C. and started going to happy hours and networking events in hopes of career advancement. In those settings, you are forced to make small talk because there is no other option but to leave. There is no purpose in being there other than networking, which absolutely requires small talk. Each event I went to cost me a lot of time, effort, and even transportation costs, so I have to dive in. This forced me to improve my skills and helped me see where I had been going wrong. I began to pay more attention to the conversational behaviors of others and see where they too were making the same mistakes I had been making.


From what I have observed, no one formally teaches us how to make small talk. You are simply expected to know how, and then execute. Today, however, we need some instruction. The word “introvert” has become very common, and now many introverts and extroverts understand themselves and each other. There is a slight danger though that introverts will simply accept their proclivity against shallow social interaction because the world now accepts that they are introverts. In reality, the ability to make small talk is something to be reasonably expected of any well-adjusted individual. You don’t have to like small talk, but to live a socially fulfilling life (and even introverts need social fulfillment), you have to be able to do it. I say this as an introvert.


To help introverts and Millennials navigate the maze of small talk proficiency, I have come up with the Ten Rules of Small Talk. I will provide Rule #10 here, and the rest in subsequent posts.


Rule #10: Small Talk is Like Choreography

Dancing. Plays. Movie Fight Scenes. Chess. These things all have a predictable pattern of A-then-B, give-and-take, or move-and-countermove. What most people don’t realize is that small talk is exactly the same way. People who enjoy making small talk never think of it this way. It takes an introvert like me to come along and view it as a system and a philosophical concept. Most of the time, when we engage in small talk, we follow a very predictable pattern (assuming it goes successfully) without knowing it. The trick for the small-talk-challenged is to understand the pattern. Then you will be able to see at which points in the dance you are struggling and put in some extra practice.

I find a great example of this concept in the movie Captain America: The Winter Soldier. In the middle of the movie is the first fight scene between Captain America and the Winter Soldier, the villain. I think it is one of the better fight scenes in a modern movie, because each character always makes the optimal move to counter the other character’s move. They always make the best move based on what was available, like they have an answer ready for every possible outcome. This is how you want your small talk to be. Obviously you don’t want it to seem forced, and it may seem a little mechanical at first, but it will become natural as you get used to it. There is a natural rhythm that needs to develop but can take a little time.

The key in knowing what to say is that there is generally a small pool of “right things” you can say when it’s your turn to speak during small talk. Your goal is to say one of those “right things.” In a fight scene, dance, or chess match, there are only a certain number of possible moves. Small talk is the same way. You can’t just say whatever you want, you have to say something with the narrow range of acceptable options. Further, the more conventional the thing you are considering saying is, the more likely it is to be in the pool of “right things.” That being said, avoid using worn-out clichés because you could end up sounding like a mindless drone. If the conversation leads to a friendship, you can move into more personal topics that actually help you get to know each other, at which point you no longer have to rely on the well-beaten path of conversational convention. The purpose of small talk, assuming you are not just killing time, is to bridge the gap from “Hi”, past the normal/boring phase of being conventional, to getting more personal. What if it’s small talk with someone you don’t like? You still need to be able to fulfill the social obligation side of small talk. If it helps, a good rule of thumb is, “what would a gregarious person say here?”


Stay tuned for more Rules of Small Talk!