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Whether it’s that awkward lull before a meeting starts, waiting in line at the coffee shop, or shaking some hands at a networking event, there’s no denying that small talk is a pretty big part of your professional life.

It’s necessary, yes. But, that doesn’t stop us all from acknowledging the fact that it can be awkward at best. After all, forced conversations about the weather or the quality of the open bar can only last for so long before you’re both hearing crickets and not-so-subtly looking around the room.

Love it or hate it, small talk is important—it’s often the launching point for deeper conversations and, thus, deeper relationships. But, does it have to be so terribly uncomfortable?

Actually, no. In fact, you’re likely committing one super common small talk mistake that’s making these exchanges even more stiff and unnatural.

The Mistake

Picture this: A professional acquaintance you haven’t seen in some time walks up to start a conversation and says, “Hey! How are you?” How do you respond?

If you’re like most people, you retort immediately with something like, “I’m great. How are you?” Aside from just a couple of short words, you’ve really only answered his question with another question.

We all have the tendency to do this same thing in a variety of situations. Whether someone asks us how our day was, what we thought of a presentation, or how we’re enjoying our meal, it’s easy to reply quickly and then bounce the conversational ball back to the other person.

While it’s great that you’re making an effort to keep things moving back and forth without monopolizing the discussion, there’s a problem with this approach: You’ll never actually talk about anything of value.

Instead, you and your conversational partner will likely continue to provide curt responses and returned questions, until eventually you run out of things to say.

The Fix

You dread those unbearably long small talk silences as much as the next person, right? So, ideally, you could do something to prevent this rapid fire conversation style and instead engage in a more meaningful discussion.

The good news is, you can. And, the fix is almost painfully simple: Beef up your responses—even just a little bit.

When someone asks how your day was, for example, provide a real explanation before bouncing the question back to them. This can look like, “My day was great! I had a really productive afternoon meeting where we discussed our website redesign, which I’m really excited about. How about you?”

Chances are, your conversational partner will follow your lead and provide a more thorough response of his or her own—laying the groundwork for a continued conversation about things that actually hold some meaning for both of you.

Even the most social among us can admit that small talk can feel forced and uncomfortable. But, it instantly becomes better when you use this simple and effective fix in order to stop committing this one common mistake. Give it a try and watch as your small talk conversations drastically improve.

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Updated 6/19/2020