Forget “Hi, How Are You?”

Individual Counseling Insights From Westlake Village-Based Patricia McTague-Loft 

Have you ever asked someone how they’re doing and gotten an in-depth and personal answer about some intimate family matter? Probably not, but if you have you probably thought to yourself — I wasn’t really asking you to tell me how you’re doing!

Young professional women talking

“Hi, how are you?” and all of its many iterations are mere polite variations on greetings from previous generations — Good day, Sir. Good afternoon, Ma’am.

But what if you took the opportunity to greet someone with a question or comment that elicited genuine conversation. The opportunities to do so are frequent, ranging from your time next to a stranger on a cross-country flight to a brief time waiting in a doctor’s office.

The problem for many people is that they don’t know how to turn small talk into a more meaningful conversation. Gary Burnison is the CEO of Korn Ferry, a global consulting firm that specializes in hiring talent. In an article he wrote for, Burnison says “The key to making the most out of small talk, according to Harvard researchers, is to simply ask the other person follow-up questions. In a series of experiments, researchers analyzed more than 300 online conversations and found that those who were asked more meaningful follow-up questions (a.k.a. questions that aren’t ‘how are you?’ or ‘what do you do’), found the other person much more likable.”

He goes on to list a variety of tips to help you instantly begin an engaging and authentic conversation, such as:

“Be in the moment and observe your surroundings.” It’s all too easy to get lost in the moment and worry about how you’re being perceived. It’s easy to say, but try to simply relax. Look around and take the chance to comment on something in the here and now. If the person you’re talking to is wearing an interesting necktie or necklace, make a casual remark about it (without overdoing it): That’s a striking necklace — was it a gift? The conversation should flow from there.

“Share some news (that actually happened).” If you’re genuinely excited or even moderately enthusiastic about something in your personal life — and we’re not talking about anything intimate — then people will almost always respond in a positive way. Burnison says, “If you have ‘news,’ share it: ‘I adopted a pet over the weekend’ or ‘My 6-year-old rode a bike for the first time yesterday!’ Believe it or not, most people actually do want to know more about others, especially if they both work at the same company.” You may be surprised how people respond by relating something in their life that relates to your story, and suddenly a deeper connection is formed.

“It’s not just what you say.” It should come as no surprise that human communication involves much more than the spoken word. Body language, facial expressions, tone of voice and so much more actually communicate more than the thought conveyed by language. Don’t go overboard, but simply by making eye contact, smiling and punctuating your speech with an occasional laugh will let the person know you’re genuinely enjoying their company.

Try these simple techniques and you may be surprised how well people respond as you strike up a casual — but somehow meaningful — conversation.

Read more of Burnison’s tips on small talk here.