"What do you do?" It's one of the first questions people lead with when introduced to someone new, and it's also one of the fastest ways to kill a conversation -- or ensure it never moves beyond the realm of career basics.
But research backs what most of us already know intuitively: meaningful conversations are directly tied to interpersonal connection and strong relationships. "Spending time in each other's presence, talking about things we both care about is absolutely essential for friendship," William Rawlins, the Stocker professor of communication studies at Ohio University and author of "The Compass of Friendship: Narratives, Identities and Dialogues," tells The Huffington Post.
"Sometimes, people don't realize the importance of small talk," Rawlins says. "Small talk leads to big talk. You have to start somewhere." Here are six tips on how to do exactly that.
1. Read the context.
A work-related question may not be a bad opener if you're at a conference or networking event, says clinical psychologist Andrea Bonior, author of "The Friendship Fix." "We often say, 'Don't get into politics or religion right away, but then again, if you're meeting someone at a protest, for example, that might be very appropriate." Taking into account where you are, who you're speaking with and what's going on around you not only helps you pose appropriate questions, it also provides material. A simple observation about where you are (think, "This is a great space" or "Wasn't that last speaker was terrific?") makes for an easy jumping-off point, sometimes better than hitting someone with a personal question.
2. Start with a positive quality.
"Compliments are nice conversation starters," says clinical psychologist Irene Levine, also a HuffPost blogger. "When we're children, it's so natural to walk up and say, 'Will you be my friend?' It just starts organically. As adults, it's a challenge to reach out to new people," but starting with something nice is a good start.
The compliment can be about the person you're meeting, but it doesn't necessarily have to be. "Maybe it's a positive quality about the person who introduced you," Bonior tells HuffPost. "Or, so and so told me you're a whiz at such and such." The idea is to put a friendly statement out there and then give the person time to respond and expand upon it.
3. Think time, not title.
"'What kind of work do you do?' might be a standard question, yet there are so many unemployed and underemployed people out there, it can be off-putting," Levine says. For her part, Bonior doesn't think it's necessarily "a terrible opener" -- especially given many people love their jobs and spend more time working than just about anything else. But a better question might be "How do you spend your time?" she recommends. "If someone wants to say 'Oh, I'm an accountant,' great, but you're also not pegging them in a hole where they think they have to give you their job description," she says. Instead, they might tell you about their hobbies or passions.
"A lot of us are really good at holding the floor. We think that's how we're interesting," Rawlins says. "But you'd be surprised at how attracted people are to someone who listens to them." That, he explains, means looking at the person speaking to you and not interrupting them. And watch out for the tendency to immediately start thinking about what you're going to say next -- it means you're distracted. It might sound obvious, but after 40 years of studying interpersonal communication and friendship, Rawlins says the number one thing that people should focus on is improving their listening skills.
5. And follow-up.
Bonior's patients often tell her about having the same conversation multiple times with the same person -- say, a mom at preschool drop-off or a new colleague -- but struggle with how to take it to the next level. The key is to follow-up on a small personal nugget from your last conversation, even if it was something as small as them complaining about running late for a meeting, or a broken air conditioner, she says. "That's the difference between an acquaintance and a friend ... [you] take one or two things they said and check in, follow-up. It creates continuity ... that's how a friendship forms," Bonior explains.
"As adults, we think this is something we're supposed to have down -- friendship. We think, 'I'm a grownup, I know how to do this," Bonior says. But friendships change and dissolve, with a move for work, new relationships, having kids, health issues, leaving people feeling lonely and "embarrassed" to admit they're not sure how to make new friends, she adds.
That's where practice comes in. Before you meet someone, remind yourself that you're going to really focus on listening, Rawlins says -- a technique he uses himself. "I'll say, 'I'm going to try my darndest not to dominate the conversation, I'm going to ask questions, and really listen," he says. "You coach yourself, you decide before you go to coffee with a person, or call them on the phone that you're really going to listen.'"