This pastry by Leslie Jensen-Inman got me thinking about triggering sharing during smalltalk …

When I travel, I always bring a book with the intention of being able to read while waiting for the plane to arrive and while inflight. However, I rarely get to read as much as I intend. Instead, I get into conversations with complete strangers who tell me very personal details of their lives. For example, on two different flights in one day, I had two separate women tell me about their hysterectomies. I hadn’t asked anything specific that would lead both women to share this very personal experience, but they both did.

I shared these and other examples of stories that have been told to me with a friend. I wondered if he had similar experiences. He clearly explained, “People share things with you because you ask the follow-up question.”

Furthering The Smalltalk

Be creative with …

  • Yes/No questions
  • What?
  • How?
  • Why?
  • Where?
  • When?
  • Meaning?
  • And?

Then simply rinse and repeat … obviously, after letting the person finish speaking.


  1. Make eye contact while the other person speaks. In general, you should aim for eye contact about 60-70% of the time that you are listening. Lean toward the other person, and nod your head occasionally. Avoid folding your arms as this signals that you are not listening.
  2. Instead of offering unsolicited advice or opinions, simply paraphrase what has been said. You might start this off by saying “In other words, what you are saying is…”.
  3. Do not interrupt while the other person is speaking. Do not prepare your reply while the other person speaks; the last thing that he says may change the meaning of what he has already said.
  4. In addition to listening to what is said, watch nonverbal behavior to pick up on hidden meaning. Facial expressions, tone of voice and other behaviors can sometimes tell you more than words alone.
  5. While listening, shut down your internal dialogue. Avoid daydreaming. It is impossible to attentively listen to someone else and your own internal voice at the same time.
  6. Show interest by asking questions to clarify what is said. Ask open-ended questions to encourage the speaker. Avoid closed yes-or-no questions that tend to shut down conversation.
  7. Avoid abruptly changing the subject; it will appear that you were not listening to the other person.
  8. As you listen, be open, neutral, and withhold judgment and stereotypes.


  1. Show interest and encourage the other person to speak by smiling and nodding during conversation.
  2. It will be easier to ask yes/no and follow-up questions if you keep up- to- date on news, entertainment and sporting events.
  3. If there isn’t a natural follow-up question, and the other person is still speaking, interject statements such as “Tell me more” or “Sounds interesting” to encourage the other person.
  4. If someone discloses something personal, such as a recent death in the family or a divorce, it is usually best to offer sympathy and support rather than ask for more details, unless you know the person very well. That person may just want to explain his situation so that you know why he is not acting like himself. Leave it up to him to decide how much to share.
  5. Be patient while you listen. We are capable of listening much faster than others can speak.
  6. Learn to recognize active listening. Watch television interviews and observe whether the interviewer is practicing active listening. Learn from the mistakes of others.

  1. How to Ask Follow-Up Questions During Small Talk
  2. How To Practice Active Listening