in: People, Podcast, Social Skills

• Last updated: May 13, 2022

Podcast #802: Stress-Free Small Talk

If making small talk makes someone anxious, it may just be because they have a fear of such interactions, and my guest today, Rich Gallagher, can help them overcome it through his practice as a therapist. Or, someone’s anxiety around small talk can be based in part on simply not knowing how to do it, and in that case, Rich helps them by teaching them the mechanics of conversation, which he shares in his book Stress-Free Small Talk, as well as on today’s show.

Rich and I begin our conversation with how small talk is important as an on-ramp to bigger things, how it’s a skill that can be developed like any other, and how learning its mechanics can dampen the anxiety you feel about taking part in it. We then turn to these mechanics of making comfortable and effective small talk, including doing prep work, embracing tried-and-true openers, and avoiding talking too much yourself. We also discuss how to join conversations that are already underway, manage committing a faux pas, acknowledge others to build connection, and end a conversation gracefully. We end our conversation with small talk strategies for first dates and job interviews, and what to do when you go to a party where you only know the host.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. If making small talk makes someone anxious, it may just be because they have a fear of such interactions and my guest today Rich Gallagher can help them overcome it through his practice as a therapist or someone’s anxiety around small talk can be based in part on simply not knowing how to do it, and in that case, Rich helps them by teaching them the mechanics of conversation, which he shares in his book Stress-free Small Talk, as well as in today’s show. Rich and I begin our conversation with how small talk is important as an on-ramp to bigger things, how it’s a skill that can be developed like any other, and how learning it’s mechanics can dampen the anxiety you feel about taking part in it.

We then turn to these mechanics of making comfortable and effective small talk, including doing prep work, embracing tried-and-true openers and avoiding talking too much yourself. We also discuss how to join conversations that are already underway, manage committing a faux pas, acknowledge others to build a connection and end a conversation gracefully. We end our conversation with small talk strategies for first dates and job interviews and what to do when you go to a party where you only know the host. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at

Rich Gallagher, welcome to the show.

Rich Gallagher: Hi Brett. Great to be with you. Thanks for having me.

Brett McKay: So you are a family therapist, but you’ve… Interesting with your work, if… You specialized in helping people with small talk, how did a family therapist end up specializing in that?

Rich Gallagher: Well, that’s a great question. I was a customer service executive before I became a therapist, and then later became an author and speaker on communication skills before I became a therapist in my 50s, so I joke that after years of teaching people how to deal with angry customers, I decided to put myself in the middle of other people’s family conflicts as well, but how this book came about was one summer, I had several clients, all of them were men, interestingly, who were severely disabled by social anxiety, and I noticed for a lot of them it wasn’t just fear, it was a lack of skills, and so I sort of developed a Betty Crocker cookbook for how to have a nourishing 5 to 7-minute conversation, and I used it to coach those clients, and it worked really well, and that’s what eventually led to Rockridge Press inviting me to develop this book Stress-Free Small Talk.

Brett McKay: So something you really emphasize in the book is that small talk is a skill. Why do you think it’s a valuable skill to learn?

Rich Gallagher: For me personally, Brett, almost every good thing has happened in my life, my marriage, my business relationships, my consulting work, all rides in the wings of connections with other people, where in most cases, when I first met them, I simply delighted in their company and small talk is a lubricant that builds those relationships, that makes those connections possible.

Brett McKay: No, yeah, so small talk usually leads to deeper relationships, that’s kind of… It’s the on-ramp to those deeper relationships.

Rich Gallagher: Absolutely. Here’s what’s interesting about it if you look at this from a historical context, is that small talk is about transmitting information to another person, and this goes back to when we were cave people, when you’re a cave man and somebody came along, you had no idea if the person you just met was gonna help you or kill you, and… So today, if you’re meeting a new business contact or if you’re on an elevator with somebody or on a first date, small talk transmits very valuable data about who you are, what you have in common, and whether someone else is safe with you.

Brett McKay: Okay, so small talk can provide a lot of benefits, but you help people, often men, who wanna engage in small talk but have an aversion to it. One of it’s lack of skill, we’ll talk about that, but there’s three potential reasons why someone shies away from small talk. One is shyness, the other is social anxiety, and then there’s introversion, and I think these three things are often confused for each other, so let’s talk about the differences. How do you as a therapist define shyness?

Rich Gallagher: These three things are important distinctions. So shyness is something that a lot of us share in common, almost half of us clinically have shyness, which is a normal level of discomfort with dealing with other people, worrying that you’re gonna make a bad impression or worrying how you’re gonna come across to the person. Social anxiety, I’ll jump ahead to that for a moment, that’s shyness on steroids, that’s where it becomes a phobia, and now you’re finding that you’re so uncomfortable being around people that you avoid things you really want in your life. Kind of people who see me for therapy often, they can’t go to school, they can’t go to work, sometimes they can’t even walk out to the mailbox for fear that somebody might speak to them. And introversion is a whole another animal entirely in the sense that introverts can’t be discerned by observation, many introverts are affable and articulate and outgoing, but the difference is they have their energy drained by interaction with other people. 75% of us are extroverts and we gain energy by talking to people, we go to a party for two hours and we feel great. Someone who’s an introvert may go to that same party for two hours and have a good time, but at the end, they need to recharge their batteries.

Brett McKay: And oftentimes, introverts can be very good and skilled at conversation, you’re just saying they might not wanna do it as much as an extrovert.

Rich Gallagher: Absolutely correct. You nailed that perfectly.

Brett McKay: Okay, let’s say someone is shy or socially anxious, which is shyness taking on steroids, so they have an aversion, they have a fear of taking part in small talk, how do you help these individuals start practicing the skill of small talk in their everyday life?

Rich Gallagher: I’m gonna break this up into two buckets, one of whom I help with the techniques in this book, and one of whom I don’t. The biggest bucket is people who not only are afraid of social interactions, but they also literally don’t know what to say, they don’t understand the skills involved and how to talk to somebody, and I’ve had very good outcomes in teaching them the mechanics of how to have conversations with people, and to me, it is mechanics and not bravery. When they learn and practice these skills and have them in their back pocket, they actually are often better conversationalists than people who haven’t been trained those things, who don’t suffer from the fear. That’s about two-thirds of people with social anxiety, then there’s another third who, they know what to say, they don’t lack social skills, they’re affable, they’re articulate, it’s really uncomfortable for them. In those cases, we treat them the same way we treat any other fear and phobia through things like gradual exposure, desensitization and practice.

Brett McKay: So in this second group, people who have the skill but just have a fear, I guess one of the things you can do to blunt that fear, so you talk about exposure therapy, I guess there might be some cognitive behavioral therapy going on changing the way they think about social interactions, correct?

Rich Gallagher: Correct. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is my jam. That’s the approach that I practice as well. And so, you’re absolutely correct, the first place we start is to get them to put down on paper what they think about a social situation, and we’ll try to reframe those beliefs. For example, I’m gonna make a fool of myself. One thing I’ll tell my clients is, have you ever been booed by hundreds of people? I have… Pro-tip is, if you’re doing a speaking gig in Boston, don’t have the anecdote about the manager of the Yankees, like I did, for example, but I recovered from that, it was actually a great speaking gig, and so we address these scary beliefs and try to make them… We don’t try to sugarcoat them, we try to make them more rational, and then that’s the cognitive part of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, then the behavioral part is where we then have them start to gradually comfortably practice and be fully present in those situations, so that they start to seem less scary over time.

Brett McKay: Well, another part of social anxiety that I’ve read, which is counter-intuitive, is that part of the problem with social anxiety is that people are thinking too much about themselves and how they appear to other people, and that just… That’s what mucks things up, ’cause they’re just so self-referential…

Rich Gallagher: Yes, absolutely.

Brett McKay: They ended up causing problems for themselves. One of the solutions to social anxiety is helping those individuals think less about themselves in a social engagement.

Rich Gallagher: That’s correct, and I’m gonna break that down further and put a finer point on it, which is… Good conversation is about mechanics, I’ll make an analogy. When Paul Simon gave a concert after South Africa got rid of apartheid, he was on stage in front of half a million people, they asked him in television, How did you feel about being part of such a momentous event? And if I remember correctly, what he said was something to the effect of, Well I was trying to make sure that I was keeping time with my bass player and I didn’t break a string, so he was focused on the mechanics of his performance. When I’m talking to somebody and I’m very comfortable in conversation, I very much care about the other person, I am very much thinking about myself and them, but I’m also taking out Tape 52 and playing it for how to walk through the mechanics of the good conversation, so moving people from self-absorption to mechanics is part of what makes this a lot more comfortable for them.

Brett McKay: One tip that’s helped me and just to be more present in a conversation is when I’m engaging with somebody, I try to think of myself as a host…

Rich Gallagher: Beautiful.

Brett McKay: I’m here to make that person feel comfortable, and for some reason that that works ’cause it gives me something to do, I don’t know, it’s kind of a weird thing that works for me, though.

Rich Gallagher: I love that framing. I actually do exactly the same thing. I’ve never taken the stage for a speaking engagement without being anxious about it, and one of the things I tell myself is this audience is in my care for the next hour, and that framing helps me a lot too.

Brett McKay: Okay, so you have individuals who have the mechanics down, but they have a fear, so there’s different things you can do to reframe how they think about social interactions or small talk. What about the individuals who… They just don’t know what to do. How do you go about helping them get the mechanics down of small talk?

Rich Gallagher: That’s the audience that this book is aimed at, so what I do is I work through the mechanics of a conversation… I’ll be glad to drill down to the details of those mechanics. For starters, people don’t know how to open a conversation, people don’t know the mechanics of acknowledging other people, and because so many people don’t know how to truly acknowledge other people, learning how to do that well changes everything about how people perceive you. If you learn how to acknowledge people which again, will walk you through discussing the detailed mechanics of that in this interview, that makes you seem like the most interesting person in the world, and then there’s other mechanics like eye contact, body language, having an open posture, and these are all things you’ll learn in practice. I’ll give you another example is, I mentioned that I usually get nervous before I speak, so I don’t walk into the venue where I’m speaking, I stride in with a big smile on my face and shake hands with people, and I transmit confidence to the other person, and at a smaller scale, that’s kind of what you learn to do to be a good conversationalist as well.

Brett McKay: I’m curious, have you seen an uptick in people seeking you out for the mechanics help since the end of… The end of the pandemic, ’cause I guess there’s a period where people just… They didn’t have to do small talk anymore, and they might have gotten rusty with their skills. Have you noticed that?

Rich Gallagher: Yes, I have noticed that. And just since I’m on… I’m not just saying this ’cause I’m in the Art of Manliness podcast, the one thing I find interesting about my consulting clients is they’re all men.

Brett McKay: Yeah, what do you think is going… Men just aren’t invested in that? Or what do you think’s going on?

Rich Gallagher: Well, there’s a cultural context to this. So think back to when we were cave people, when a man could no longer hunt, he died, and when a woman could no longer attract a mate to bring food back to the nest with the kids, she died, and so you fast forward thousands of years later, and that’s partly an explanation why women tend to be really good at relationships, women tend to be good at the conversation, and men tend to be more focused in their careers. So the kind of men that I work with, generally, they’re really talented, really smart people, and ironically, they usually talk really well informally but they realize that if they wanna get a third date with somebody, or if they want to get the position they want, they need to be more comfortable in social settings.

Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about this skill, the mechanics of a small talk interaction. So you say that it should begin even before you take part in small talk, you need to do some prep work, so what does prep work look like for small talk?

Rich Gallagher: That’s kind of the hidden secret of a good conversation is if you’re going into a social event where you wanna meet people or talk to people, or if you’re going on a date with somebody, or… It’s important to prepare three to five good opening questions, and it’s also important to come up with some credentialing statements, to kinda quickly, and perhaps humorously or pleasantly, define who you are, there’s no one formula for conversations. Here’s a good case in point, I’m very emotional, my wife is very emotional, we kind of bond over that. I have a brother, he’s a scientist with a PhD, he’s incredibly practical, and when he would go on dates with people who’d fallen all over him, he’d kinda shy away, and I’ll never forget when he met a fellow engineering student that was… They just reveled in each other’s practicality and they’ve been married for 40 years now, so defining who he is and defining who I am is part of the objective too, and that’s all prep.

Brett McKay: Something my wife and I do before we go to a couple’s house for dinner or to a social event, we actually come up with a list, like, Here’s the things I’m gonna bring up, I’m gonna talk about.

Rich Gallagher: That’s wonderful.

Brett McKay: And people might think, Well, that’s… Small talk is supposed to be spontaneous, and I don’t think so. I think you should have set topics you wanna bring up in the conversation, if they seem natural to the conversation.

Rich Gallagher: Iggy Pop, the musician once pointed to his drummer and said the drum part is a composed performance, I think a good conversation is the same thing as well. Obviously there’s a certain amount of improvisation, you never know where a conversation is gonna go. There’s techniques you can use to manage the flow of that conversation, but I think preparation is a really important part of having a good conversation, and let’s say you’re interviewing for a job, for example, if you have a statement of credentials, how good you are at what they’re trying to hire you for and it’s a good, humble, informative snippet about who you are, that could land you the job, and so I think you’re right on target by prepping for these conversations, and I’ll bet it makes you a much more interesting person.

Brett McKay: I hope so. And I think too, your prep will vary depending on the social situation you’re in…

Rich Gallagher: Absolutely.

Brett McKay: So your prep might be different, so if you know this person is gonna be there, they’re interested in these topics, I’m gonna get some topics fodder for that, or if you’re going to a wedding or a business networking event, you can prep towards that, so you just… So it fits the context and the situation you’re in.

Rich Gallagher: Absolutely correct. And there’s a level of appropriate for bringing out that research into your talk, it informs a good conversation, it doesn’t drive it necessarily. For example, I know you’re from Tulsa, for example, [0:15:11.7] ____ your show, and if we were talking informally meeting as friends, I’d be maybe slipping at some point, when I pulled in to 3:00 in the morning at Will Rogers casino and ended up gambling at 3:00 AM, what a cool experience that was.

Brett McKay: Yeah, and I think what that prep does too, is it can help blunt some of the fears you might have with small talk ’cause you feel like you’re prepared instead of just having to come up with it off the cuff.

Rich Gallagher: Correct, and it gives you a ledge you can climb on to find points of common interest with the other person. Part of it too is of course your prep is a way of testing what the other person is interested in talking about, and then following their lead as well.

Brett McKay: Okay, so do some prep… Let’s talk about first impression, you mentioned that earlier when you go to an event to speak, you don’t just shuffle onto the stage, you stride in.

Rich Gallagher: That’s right.

Brett McKay: So what are some things that people can do in just every day small talk to manage their first impression?

Rich Gallagher: You frame that very well, I think… The mechanics of how you present yourself physically is important, eye contact, body language, having an open posture. One of the things I talk about in the book is having an appropriate distance from the other person, one expert suggests shaking hands with somebody and then taking a step back and see if they follow you or if they keep their distance, different cultures have different norms for how close is appropriate and sometimes people actually [0:16:28.4] ____ backwards around the room, not figuring that out. So that’s important, ’cause that again, helps people feel safe with you and create a spark of interest, but then I think the important thing is what’s the first thing you say when you open your mouth and having a prepared opening, this is good too.

Some of the old standbys are common shared interests, your interests, and the questions, learning about the other person, so what you’re looking for is ledges that you can climb up on to get the other person talking and to delight in their company. I wanna put a finer point on this, ’cause this is very important when you have social anxiety. When you have social anxiety, you’re worried about being on stage in front of another person, that’s very uncomfortable for you, and having good openings and good questions and good acknowledgement, gives you the power to hand the conversation back to the person, take the spotlight off you, and gives you a sense of control if it makes it easier for you.

Brett McKay: So what’s an example of a good tried-and-true opener?

Rich Gallagher: I actually like… If it’s a professional setting, I actually like, What do you do? I’ve seen articles say, Oh, don’t ask What do you do? That’s a tired question. I think it’s a wonderful question, ’cause men especially, we tend to be invested in our livelihoods and our careers, so that’s often a reliable topic. If you’ve got an interest that you wanna brain yourself around, I think it’s perfectly okay to share that impulse if the other person’s interested and finally, I think a good opening is, especially if you’re on a date with somebody, is share a titbit about how you feel and who you are, and see how the other person reacts to that, make it non-threatening, but if you talk about something you really like about other people, like you like it when people open up to you, or you like it when people are practical, not only are you seeking connection with the other person, but this is also a good weed out for whether this is a person you wanna get closer to.

Brett McKay: What are some openers that you think people should avoid?

Rich Gallagher: Well, first of all, the weather, ’cause you don’t wanna advertise how boring you are, unless it’s really really extreme weather. Obvious things to stay away from is politics and religion. I’d also be very careful about criticism, especially things… For example, is you know, I have an Irish surname, Gallagher. If someone was talking to me about their last trip to Europe and they make a snide comment about dealing with Eastern Europeans, they may not realize I’m actually a Czech citizen and I’m very proud of my heritage as a [0:18:49.3] ____. So obviously, because in our marriage, I have a different name, and I guess the other thing I’ll say about openers that you should be careful about avoiding is I would also avoid relationships unless you know somebody really well, you don’t wanna ask somebody how their wife or kids are doing in case they just got divorced or junior just got arrested again. It’s better to be a little generic and say, How are you doing these days.

Brett McKay: And the openers are gonna vary depending on, I guess the context. If they’re strangers, your opening is gonna differ from… That you’d use on an acquaintance.

Rich Gallagher: Correct, and you’re gonna have a context-dependent and cultural-dependent opening that you’re gonna prepare ahead of time.

Brett McKay: Let’s say you’re at an event, you’re at a party, for example, and there’s a group of people chatting and you’re like, “Okay, I wanna join this group.” How do you insert yourself in the conversation, ’cause I think a lot of people feel uncomfortable about that.

Rich Gallagher: That is a great question Brett, because there’s mechanics behind that, a lot of people with social anxiety are really uncomfortable trying to introduce themselves to a group of people, so here’s the way I walk through the mechanics, first of all, get physically close to that group, not too close but close enough that you’re showing interest, read their body language and see if they’re closing ranks when you come by or if they’re not, and then if you’re interested, look for a hook and hooks can take the form of either somebody you know in that group, saying, “Hey, John, good to see you again,” or when they bring up a common topic, you then insert yourself and say, “Oh, I see you’re talking about Quality Management, that’s a big passion of mine, what do you guys think about single customer review.” Or, “I see you’re bass players, what do you think of Geddy Lee? Good stuff, bassist?”

Brett McKay: Okay, so yeah, there’s a potential to do it gracefully. And again, I don’t think you should worry too much. I think a lot of people, they worry too much about, “Oh, man, it’s gonna be awkward.” Usually it’s not, the conversations where I’ve had someone join me, it seemed completely natural.

Rich Gallagher: Absolutely, and I have a brother who’s a world class sales person, and one of the things that he says is, “They’re not gonna take out a gun and shoot me if I go up and talk to somebody.”

Brett McKay: Right, exactly. We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. Okay, let’s say you got the conversation going, you used an opener, you were getting that chit-chat back and forth, you argue in the book, or you point out in the book that this is the point where a lot of people get nervous and they actually start talking more than they need to and they start dominating the conversation. So how do you avoid that conversational narcissism once you get the conversation going?

Rich Gallagher: I love that term, “Conversational Narcissism,” that’s well put. And I’m gonna put a finer point in that. Narcissism is often a matter of seeking to control other people where this kind of narcissism is kind of a venial sin narcissism of not knowing what else to do and talking. And my answer to that is to circle back to mechanics, again, one of the things I talk about in the book is what I call the three-to-one rule, which is you ask the other person three questions and then after the three questions… So it doesn’t just turn into interrogation, you share one thing about yourself. You can modify that rule, so it’s a three to two rule or a four to one rule, or whatever works for you, but being aware of those mechanics in the back of your mind just like Paul Simon at his concert is the way you avoid that.

Brett McKay: Yeah, for me, I know I got a good conversation going, if it feels like a game of catch, it’s just back and forth and it just… It grooves, it feels good. So what do you do… Okay, so you’re following this three-to-one ratio, what do you do if you’re in a conversation where the other person just talks, and talks and talks. Any tips there?

Rich Gallagher: A lot of the techniques I teach in communication skills, especially through difficult conversations, work about 85% of the time. I have one that works almost 100% of the time that I call The acknowledging close, and the way that that works is you enthusiastically acknowledge the last thing that this person says, and you interrupt them to do that, and then what you do is then you jump in with a binary question, something that has a yes, no or a short statement answer. As as soon as they answer, you jump in with the next binary question and guess what, you’ve just taken control of the conversation.

Brett McKay: Okay, I like that. I’m gonna use that next time that happens. You’ve got the conversation going. It’s great. You need to leave. Exiting a conversation can cause a lot of anxiety for people.

Rich Gallagher: Yeah, absolutely.

Brett McKay: So how do you leave a conversation smoothly or gracefully?

Rich Gallagher: There’s a very important principle here, which is that psychologists will tell you that people remember the last thing that they hear from you, so let’s say that you’re with somebody and have a knock down, drag out, fight with them all day, that you end by smiling and shaking hands. That goes in your memory banks as a good encounter. If you have a great day with your best friend and then you end with cross words at the end, that goes in your memory banks as a bad encounter. What this has to do with social anxiety is you can recover from a blah or unsatisfying conversation by having a really good closing, so when you say enthusiastically, “I have to run and meet somebody, but wow, it’s been great to meet you, George. Hope we can talk again some time.” That goes in that person’s memory bank as a good encounter and you go in their memory banks as a cool person.

Brett McKay: So what would be an inappropriate way to do it?

Rich Gallagher: I gotta go.

Brett McKay: Or the Irish goodbye. You just kind of slowly fade away, don’t say you left. I’ve done that before at parties, I’ll admit.

Rich Gallagher: Absolutely. And sometimes that’s appropriate. These are cockpit decisions you can make depending on how close you wanna be to that other person in the future as well, and sometimes you wanna ghost people and that’s a good skill to have as well.

Brett McKay: Okay, so basically the go-to should be enthusiastically agree with the person and then say it was so great, and then just get out of there and don’t worry about it. Yeah, that’s fine.

Rich Gallagher: Absolutely. Absolutely, and that more often than not, will leave a great impression.

Brett McKay: What happens if a conversation goes sideways or a small talk goes sideways? I guess the first question would be, What are some ways that you’ve seen that small talk can go sideways. And then how do you recover from that?

Rich Gallagher: I think, first of all, you have to be careful about criticism of anything unless it’s something universal, like traffic or paying your taxes, because you never know what kind of relationships or life experiences that the other person has had, for example, you may criticize a celebrity and find out this person is related to them, for example. Implicit bias is something you have to be careful of, one example I have in the book is where somebody introduces you to a couple and say, Hi, this is Dr. Smith, and you turn to the husband and say, Hi, Dr. Smith, and it’s actually the wife who’s the doctor, and sometimes just car crashes happen where something comes out and you didn’t realize it was gonna be a problem and it is. One thing that happened to me, for example, was when my sister went to college, she had this scruffy boyfriend, who had a nickname, let’s call him Jojo, and…

So he was… He drove a beat up old car, he was always in a lot of trouble. Years later, my father became President of that university, and often would mention to me that, Boy, Jojo is doing really well in his career, and he’s rising through the corporate ranks. Years later, I’m at my father’s retirement banquet, and now I’m sitting next to Jojo, who’s now the CEO of one of the biggest companies in Canada, and I regale him with stories about all the misadventures that he and my sister got into it, and he’d smile and nod, stiffly. And then later, my sister told me that Jojo is actually a fairly common nickname in Canada, and that that was the wrong Jojo. If he had told me about that, what I would have done, and what I prescribe for everybody is to own it and normalize it to say, Wow, that was a horrible thing I just said. I call this leaning into your mistakes, we instinctively try to minimize what we said or try to explain why we did it or how we didn’t mean it, and I want you to revel in how horrible it was, and that transfers authenticity to the other person and shows respect and more often than not, it will fix the faux pas.

Brett McKay: And I think most people… They’re on your side. They want to have a good interaction with you, so if you do make a mistake…

Rich Gallagher: Exactly.

Brett McKay: They’re not gonna hold it over your head.

Rich Gallagher: Right, exactly, exactly correct.

Brett McKay: And I think this applies to public speaking as well, it’s another tip I use when I remember is like, These people are on my side, they don’t want us…

Rich Gallagher: Absolutely.

Brett McKay: They don’t wanna see me mess up.

Rich Gallagher: Absolutely, and for someone like me who used to speak 40 or 50 times a year, you can’t speak that often without truly laying an egg at least two or three times, and so being able to laugh, own that, acknowledge it, that often will bring the audience on your side even if you said something really stupid like, my gaffe in Boston there.

Brett McKay: Let’s talk about… What I like about what are you do in the book is you give specific small talk strategies for different situations, let’s talk about first dates. What’s a…

Rich Gallagher: Okay, absolutely.

Brett McKay: What’s a good small talk strategy for a first date.

Rich Gallagher: Here’s the objective with a date, and this is part of the gender and cultural differences about dating. They’ve done surveys of what women value on a first date with people, and they value a good conversation, but the single biggest thing is they wanna feel safe with you, ’cause they don’t know you yet, and so they’re trying to determine whether you’re an axe murderer or not, and so it’s… Whereas men often go into dates thinking it’s their job to convince a date how fantabulous they are, whereas your job is to authentically share who you really are with the other person, because again, they’re weeding you out and you’re weeding them out, and to make them feel safe and at ease with you. So I think it’s good to have a couple of upbeat credentialing examples of how practical you are, how emotional you are, how much you love music, whatever it is that really would connect you with another person that you wanna be closer to.

Brett McKay: And then also just to ask questions, but without it being like an interrogation.

Rich Gallagher: Exactly, and the other thing that I mention in the book is to… Compliments are a good thing as long as you don’t lay them on too thick, and as long as they’re culturally appropriate for men and women.

Brett McKay: And I think as you talk to somebody… You ask a question about like, Oh, tell me about what you do for your career. There’s opportunities for complementing there, it’s like, Wow, it’s really cool that you do that or whatever.

Rich Gallagher: And that gets to something that I wanna share is I think really… The key conversation skill for any conversation, including a first date, which is how to acknowledge people, because that has mechanics behind it. I break it down into what I call the four octane levels of acknowledgement, which is… The first octane level, when somebody says something to you about something in their life is paraphrasing, what you do is… How paraphrasing works is you simply take what they said, gift wrap it in your own words and hand it right back to them. You’re not giving any judgement, you’re not giving any analysis, you’re just playing back what they said to you, so when somebody says, “My son just got into college,” you’re saying, “Wow, so your son got into a good university, congratulations.” It may seem really lame to just play back what another person says, but that’s a technique you can have in your back pocket if you don’t know what else to say.

Once I was on stage in front of hundreds of people, and I had somebody role play with me, and they had an example where there was a snafu and they weren’t gonna graduate, and they came up yelling and screaming at me and all I did was just paraphrase everything they said. Wow, this is really inconveniencing you, this is holding up your job, we gotta figure out a way to help you graduate as soon as possible. And she’s standing there with this look of stun silence on her face. I’m trying to get mad at this guy and I don’t know what to say. So that’s the lowest octane level of acknowledgement. The next octane level is observation, where instead of just playing back what they’re saying, you take a guess at what they’re feeling. You can’t crack open their head and see what they’re feeling, and it’s safe to guess about it. Before I became a crisis counselor… Before I became a therapist, I was a crisis line counselor in the suicide prevention crisis line, and one of the things they train us to do is take a guess at what the other person’s feeling.

So we may say, Okay, you just broke up with your boyfriend and you’re feeling very frightened, they may even come back to say, No, I’m not frightened, I’m angry, but they still appreciate the fact that you’re trying to lock in on how they feel. So on a date an observation phrase could be something like, Wow I can tell by your tone of voice, how proud you are about that, or I’m reading your body language, your… Wow, that must have been really frustrating. The next octane level up, and I like this for men because it’s emotionally a little safer than expressing emotions is validation. So paraphrasing is, here’s your thought, observation is, here’s what I think you’re feeling. Validation is, I see how you feel, and I think your feelings are valid, that’s where the term comes from.

I think you have a right to feel that way. And you can do this even if you violently disagree with the other person. Validation is nothing more than letting somebody know that other people feel the same way, so all you do is just invite a big crowd in your answer and say, Everybody hates to pay their taxes or nobody likes it when somebody goes off on you like that, and then the highest octane level is identification, where you assure that you would feel the same way. “Wow if that happened, that would bother me too.” So if somebody operates on an emotional plane, then the higher the octane level you go, the better the other person tends to feel, so you need to kind of titrate in real time, which octane level that you’re using acknowledge the other person. When you get good at this, you become the most interesting person in the world.

Brett McKay: And again, this is a skill you’ll learn through trial and error how to titrate that.

Rich Gallagher: And when I am in therapy with people or coaching people on small talk, we do incessant role-playing until people get really, really good at it.

Brett McKay: Okay. So we talked about first dates, so the goal there is to let the woman know that you are someone you can trust, etcetera, make that emotional connection. Let’s talk about a small talk on a job interview.

Rich Gallagher: Oh, that’s a great example.

Brett McKay: What should that look like?

Rich Gallagher: And that’s Old Home days for me, one of the things that I did for the last decade was every year I would teach an orientation workshop for those a week long for the incoming engineering graduate students at Cornell. And it was almost all focused around how to do your first job interviews. And one of the things I would tell people is you have two objectives, or I should say the interviewer has two objectives in the interview. One is, can you do the job? The other is, are you an axe murderer. And so your job, just like a date is not to convince the interviewer how fantabulous you are, but so authentically, transfer and transmit information about who you are and what you’re gonna be like to work with. And so here, you mentioned preparation earlier this… Here having good preparation and good credential examples is really important. I’ll give you a really good example of this.

I’ve interviewed hundreds of peoples. I ran customer service call centers in the software industry for a long time, and when you’re hiring somebody to work in a call center, they really have to know computers really well, ’cause of course they’re doing technical support. Once my human resource department set me up with an interview with somebody who’d been a construction worker all his life, then he hurt his back and couldn’t do construction anymore, went back to community college to learn computer programming, and so I wasn’t sure what to make of that and I wasn’t sure if that person would really have the depth of skills that we were looking for. So I went in the interview, the first question I asked was, “So what was it like for you going from construction and contracting to learning how to work with computers?”

And what he said was, he says, “When I learned this programming language, here’s how they taught me. Now, if I were teaching this language, here’s what I would do,” and he just proceed to lay out a curriculum and my jaw was on the floor. I would have given my right arm to hire him, and he actually had plenty of offers and went elsewhere, but that was an example of where a good credential example really changed my perception of whether this was somebody I wanted to hire. Small talk is important in an interview because the interviewer wants to know what you’re like to work with, and so if they’re talking about what’s going on in their lives, or if they’re venting frustrations about what’s happening in the workplace, they’re looking to see how you’re gonna react to that, and they’re also looking to see, what kind of a person are you gonna be like as a co-worker with people who are currently on the team.

Brett McKay: Now, in my experience, it’s been a long time, since I’ve done a job interview, but when I was interviewing for a Law intern jobs, I understood that, okay, my resume has obviously… They thought my credentials were good, they think I’m… The point of this job interview is they like me and they’re gonna get along with me, so I just… Basically, my interviews never talked about my grades, they never talked about my interest in law, it was just like… It was basically a 20-minute small talk conversation about random stuff.

Rich Gallagher: That’s wonderful. They’re trying to get to know who you were and what kind of person you were like. And one thing that’s really important about this is, I think it’s important to also authentically get across who you are, I’ve never seen people blow interviews for the most part. Once in a great great while, I’m interviewing somebody for customer service, they talk about how they hate customers. But for the most part, people don’t blow interviews ’cause they’re too nervous, they don’t blow interviews because they accidentally say the wrong thing. Usually it’s very clear to the interviewer who the right person for the job is among the people they talk to. So your job is just to authentically relax and be who you are. I’ll give you one example of this.

My last corporate job was I was the manager of a 24-hour call center for a large software company, and one of the first questions they asked me is, they said, “Rich, people in this company tend to travel a lot. We have customers all over the country, and we tend to do a lot of traveling. What do you think about traveling?” And what I said is, “Listen carefully, I hate traveling.” I’m good for maybe three or four trips a year, and if you want more than that, you should move on to the next person. Here’s the experience and here’s the benefits I bring to the table if you were to hire me, and so they liked what they heard and they hired me. And more importantly, they hired me on my terms, traveling within my tolerance for travel.

Brett McKay: Right. So don’t give the answer you think they wanna hear, just…

Rich Gallagher: Exactly, correct.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Rich Gallagher: And the reason that’s important is not just boundary setting, but also people have pretty good radar for whether you’re being sincere and authentic. And if you’re comfortable with who you are and transmit that to the other person, that is so much more important than trying to impress the other person.

Brett McKay: Let’s talk about a situation that I think makes a lot of people uncomfortable. They’re invited to a party, but the only person they know there is the host, and so what you typically end up doing is just hanging around the host the entire time.

Rich Gallagher: Absolutely.

Brett McKay: What’s a good game plan for that?

Rich Gallagher: That’s a great question. And that’s actually a very good situation, a lot of social situations are where you are going to the conference you don’t know anyone, for example, or worse, you go to a conference or a party and you only know, as you mentioned, some people and you only hang out with them. My strategy for that is you ask them to introduce you to other people they know, and also mechanics figure into this too. When somebody is hosting a party with a lot of people, you get a certain slice of their time and that’s the appropriateness you should keep in the back of your mind, but leveraging that relationship to connect with other relationships is the strategy you use there.

Brett McKay: Okay, so yeah, go to your host be like, “Can you introduce me to some people that you think we can get along”

Rich Gallagher: Exactly. Leverage that relationship.

Brett McKay: What about… And this is another common one, weddings, where you’re assigned a seat and you’re assigned to someone, like I have no clue who this person is. How do you navigate that one?

Rich Gallagher: Absolutely, it’s hard to prep for those, of course, because these are like patients in different rooms of the hospital. I was in exactly that situation not that long ago with the relative getting married where I was with the old people table, of course. And I thought it was wonderful because just going through the basic mechanics of who are you, what do you do, what do you like. Here’s what I’m like, I made some really good friendships that have persisted since then from just getting to know people and getting everyone to open up.

Brett McKay: And again, you gotta be careful, especially at a wedding, let’s say, “Oh, how do you know the groom?” And they’re like… And then you start telling this crazy story from your college days that might be embarrassing to the… You don’t wanna do that.

Rich Gallagher: Right, exactly. Exactly correct. This gets the… What we were talking about earlier about, be careful and anything is potentially critical or incriminating about the guest of honor.

Brett McKay: What’s that thing from the Rotary Club? I think it’s from the Rotary Club, that’s like, don’t say something if it’s like…

Rich Gallagher: Rotary Four-Way…

Brett McKay: What was that?

Rich Gallagher: Rotary Four-Way Test. I actually gave a talk on the Rotary Four-Way Test, on a former Rotarian. And I don’t remember it off the top of my head, but basically, is it kind? Is it true? Is it going to help build good will among people? It’s a good strategy to live by.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I think it’s a good way to navigate what to say.

Rich Gallagher: Absolutely.

Brett McKay: Rich, this has been a great conversation.

Rich Gallagher: Likewise.

Brett McKay: Is there some place quiet people can go to learn more about your work?

Rich Gallagher: Absolutely, so yeah, the book is called Stress-Free Small Talk, it’s available where fine books are sold and also available online, most… It’s actually one of the best selling books on conversation skills for social anxiety, which is not the biggest niche in the world. And I have a website, that tells more about that, and also this is my hub for coaching services, and I also have a very informative blog on topics on how to have good small talk, which is all free.

Brett McKay: Well, Rich Gallagher, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Rich Gallagher: Thank you Brett, you too.

Brett McKay: My guest today is Rich Gallagher, he’s the author of the book Stress-Free Small Talk, it’s available on amazon. You can find more information about his work at his website, Also check out our show notes at, where you find links to resources, and we delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of The AOM podcast, make sure to check out our website at where you find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles written over the years about pretty much anything you can think of. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes you can do so on Stitcher premium. Head over to, sign up, use code manliness at checkout for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on android, ios, and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of The AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you’d take one minute to give us a review on Apple podcast or Spotify. It helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you, please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. And until next time, this is Brett McKay reminding you to not only listen to the AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.

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