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Few things are as disliked as small talk — especially by people who are socially anxious or shy.  The feeling of being out there on your own without a clue to get the conversational ball rolling can feel a bit overwhelming.  But the ability to make small talk is an important social skill.  Even the best of friends — or partners — were strangers at one time and needed to meet.  So what’s a person to do?

Many shy people get distracted by their own thoughts; they are worried about how they are coming across to the person they are addressing, and their mind chatter becomes intense and distracting.  They feel socially awkward, and that feels awful.  They forget that if they open up, the other person often will as well.

A great article on fastcompany.com makes practical suggestions for people in work situations.  With a little work, however, they can be adapted to a wide variety of social occasions where you’re meeting someone new and need to get the conversational ball rolling.  Specifically, the article suggests these five questions:

“What’s your connection to the event?” This question can uncover mutual contacts and usually leads to a more robust answer than if you asked the typical “Have you been to this event before?”

“What’s keeping you busy when you’re not at events like this or at work?” This question gives the encouragement necessary for the person to share his/her passions and outside interests. It is an excellent way to add some enthusiasm into a conversation that has hit a lull, especially if he/she would prefer to be doing that activity at that moment.

“Are you getting away this summer?” This question can lead to conversations about family, reveal special interests and, if you like talking about travel, it’s a sure-fire way to keep a conversation interesting.

“Are you working on any charity initiatives?” This question makes it easy to launch into a deeper connection. If they’re not involved with any projects, they often share reasons which is usually revealing, and if they are doing something of value they will be more than happy to share.

“How did you come to be in your line of work?” For some, the path to where they are today can be quite an interesting ordeal. Having a chance to revisit their story to success can leave helpful clues along the way as to who they are and what makes them tick.

And if it doesn’t go perfectly, despite your best efforts?  Then pat yourself on the back for doing something difficult and having demonstrated a bit of courage.  Every social occasion isn’t going to yield a new connection, but if you do the right things you’ll change the trajectory of your social life and get over your anxiety about small talk.