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For the cocktail-chat challenged, the strategy is tried and true: Ask questions, find common ground, then escape to the bar. But the art of conversation is combining good technique with the right attitude, according to talk show hosts Steven Sabados and Chris Hyndman of CBC's Steven and Chris. Here's how to survive small talk and maybe even enjoy it too.

Arrive armed

"I'm not a fan of silence. When there's nothing left I go into a complete panic," Mr. Hyndman says.

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He recommends scanning the headlines before a party to build a store of possible subjects. An obvious contender, say, would be the debacle involving Julian Assange of WikiLeaks. Topical, political but not so close to home that people are likely to get into a shouting match.

"Find out what's happening currently that's a bit of a buzz. If the Academy Awards were on last night, look up who won what," Mr. Hyndman says.

Pay attention

Nervous chatter can turn into a conversation monopoly. "I think the worst thing you can do is talk about yourself too much," Mr. Sabados says. "Sometimes listening is better than talking."

Mr. Hyndman concurs, acknowledging: "I'm always butting in and finishing someone's thoughts. I have to make it my mission in life to not end someone's sentences."

Not only is listening closely polite, it will yield questions you can ask to keep things rolling until the sweet release of the dinner bell.

Give and take

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Seeking recommendations for anything from restaurants to cellphone plans can get people thinking and talking.

Giving a compliment is Mr. Sabados's sure-fire way to start, or save, a conversation. "Say, 'That's a beautiful jacket. Where did you get it?' You can easily start things back up."

Don't overlook Great-Aunt Berta

In a room full of strangers or people you'd rather avoid, an elderly person could be your saving grace. "I've met Steven's grandparents and he's met mine, and they've ended up being our favourite people to talk with," Mr. Hyndman says. "… someone who has made it to 90 is full of opinions."

Worried about an intergenerational clash of views? "Ask them to tell you a story," Mr. Sabados says. "They'll have fantastic stories. They're probably better storytellers than we'll ever be."

Talk pets (at your peril)

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Rapid-fire questions can begin to feel like an interview, so Mr. Sabados looks for topics with traction. "People love talking about their pets," he says. "We have a dog, Max, and I could talk about her for half an hour." If someone whips out pet photos, keep him or her scrolling through pictures until you land on your next topic, such as a vacation or kids.

Wrap it up, gracefully

"I don't like it when someone says, 'I'm going to the bar to replenish my drink.' I think it's better to say, 'Would you like to come with me?' " Mr. Hyndman says. "If they don't move on, at least you're in motion. You might be able to include other people along the way and bring in some new topics, because you've obviously run dry, but always be conscious of not hurting their feelings."



*And don't do this: Open with the overused "What do you do?" Ask later in the night if you bond.



Special to The Globe and Mail

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