How to Deal With Small Talk Anxiety

Last week, I wrote about the importance of small talk. One of the responses I got was to the effect of, “But small talk fills me with anxiety. That’s my problem with it.”

Well, here are some suggestions to help you keep your anxiety in check* …

If you’ve read my coaching curriculum or previous blog posts (#, #), you may have noticed that my conversational style is based in no small part on comedy principles. I was a theater geek in high school and college, having taken various theater and improv classes. My best friend growing up also worked at the Irvine Improv for several years, so I got to learn about what happens behind the scenes on the stand-up circuit. Through these two experiences, I realized how much practice and preparation goes into comedy.

Even on shows like Whose Line Is It, Anyway?, where the performers are given prompts and have to improvise skits on the spot, they still practice regularly, running through different scenarios to sharpen their wit. To be clear, the practice scenarios aren’t the same as the prompts they get during an actual show, so they can’t just rehash lines verbatim. Nevertheless, practicing does allow the performers to work out the types of comments that people will find funny.

And that’s the irony of improvisation, whether it be comedy, jazz, social dancing, or anything else that is ostensibly made up on the spot. Once you practice it enough, you’re not really improvising anymore. You’re simply drawing from a repertoire of lines, notes, movements, or whatever your medium is, that you figured out during practice.

The improvisation thus boils down to inserting a pre-practiced line/note/movement that fits at any given moment.

And guess what? You can think about conversations in the exact same way. Here’s an excerpt from a blog post I wrote a while back:

[I realized that] being charming can be practiced and learned. Through the trials and errors of countless first dates, I’ve figured out what I need to say to keep the conversation flowing. I’ve learned how to build rapport by listening to her stories and connecting them to my own experiences. I’ve learned how to come across as intelligent and funny, with just the tinge of flirty.

People say that a great conversation will naturally evolve and flow in unpredictable ways. And I completely agree. When I meet someone new, I really don’t know where our conversation will end up. At the same time, I do find myself drawing from my repertoire of tried-and-true anecdotes. It’s just a matter of inserting the appropriate one at the appropriate time. Because these are the anecdotes that have worked for me in the past.

I’ve also noticed that the stories I share often lead to specific questions. Like the comedian who anticipates the responses his jokes will get and crafts the perfect comeback to those responses, I’ve learned to anticipate and craft responses to the questions my stories elicit.

For example, I used to play poker professionally. That little nugget of my life always sparks a deep conversation. I remember the moment I decided I didn’t want to play poker for a living anymore, the moment that led me to where I am today: a teacher of at-risk kids. The question of how I went from poker player to teacher/counselor seems to come up on every first date. And when it does, I don’t hesitate to tell the story, because I know it paints me in an attractive light.

Over the years, I’ve learned to tell my poker-player-to-teacher story as either a 10-second throwaway answer or an elaborated two-minute anecdote. Which answer I give depends on how engaged I assess the other person to be. Both answers have a basic plotline and all the elements of a story. There is a moral at the end. There are specific words and phrasings that I use to convey my point (all of which I’ll describe in detail in a later blog post).

I have many other stories, and I simply draw from them as needed. Yeah, yeah, this may sound downright obsessive, but it’s a key part of how I became a better conversationalist.

And you can, too! If small talk makes you nervous, then really take some time and think about the potential topics of conversation that can come up beforehand. Try to anticipate what people might say or ask. Practice some responses, and gradually build up your repertoire. Keep it diverse. Some will be one-line comments. Others will be anecdotes. Still others will be observations that segue into a question you can ask the other person (so you can keep a balanced conversation).

And of course, you put yourself out there and challenge yourself to make small talk as often as you can.

Over time, you’ll find yourself feeling far less anxiety making small talk, because all the new conversations you have will start to feel familiar, as though you’ve done it all before. Because on some level, you will have.

You’ll even get to a point where you find that you don’t have to practice much anymore, because you’ve learned to be comfortable with the act itself of making small talk.

No, it’s not a quick fix. But it’s an effective one.


*To clarify, this post is about mild social anxiety. If you suffer from severe, debilitating anxiety, please consider seeing a psychiatrist, as your condition may necessitate medical treatment.

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2 thoughts on “How to Deal With Small Talk Anxiety

  1. Hi Dennis- I am using this with a few of my clients! It seems that these are fitting exercises for social anxiety, but also people who generally experience small talk as shallow, but feel they are missing out on other experiences that can only be accessed through casual chats. Are you interested in guest posting?

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