How well does your small talk unfreeze or put people at ease ahead of a business conversation? Or are you one of those intense people that “have to get straight into it”?
How well are you able to engage in “small-talk”? You know, the (hopefully) relaxed and informal “shooting the breeze” with a person or within a group ahead of the conversation turning to its intended purpose? Does it make you feel uncomfortable? Does it worry you that you might not know how to start it or have something to say and that you may come across as awkward? Or is it something you have learned to leverage as part of your superior social skills and communication skills?
Do you find small talk hard or easy?
I have been surprised how many of my clients seem to struggle with small-talk in a business conversation context, and so I thought I’d share with you what we have learned about this topic.
So first of all, what is it and what does it mean? Wikipedia calls it “a conversation for its own sake; one that does not necessarily cover any functional topics or any transactions that need to be addressed other than that it is a bonding ritual and a strategy for managing interpersonal distance; it helps new acquaintances to explore and categorize each others social position; it lubricates social interactions in a very flexible way, particularly as a conversation opener”.
When do we use small talk?
If you watch any human interaction, that is where people are talking to each other, there is usually always:
a) a greeting and an introduction,
b) usually a topic or context that is discussed, with an agreement or conclusion or undertaking
c) and usually a close and a farewell, right?
Quite a normal process of most conversations whether they are personal, informal, business or outcome focused or not.
By the above definition and in my experience, small-talk is most usually found in the initial stages of human interaction, whether the parties know each other or not, agree? I have learned that already in these early stages of a conversation small-talk does not only help with “unfreezing” or “ice-breaking” to put people at ease, but that it can already be very skillfully applied to subtly and powerfully start the influencing process.
Cultural influences on small talk
In our business world of the constant search for improved effectiveness and efficiency, we sometimes forget the importance of “unfreezing” the parties to a conversation in our quest to “get to the point” or “cut to the chase” or get to “the bottom line”. This is when we focus from the outset at the intended result or outcome (usually ours) and disregard any need or form of initially investing in recognizing, exploring or strengthening any form of respect for or relationship with the other person or party. In many cultures this is considered extremely bad manners and suggests a lack of respect for the other person and any form of relationship this may circumnavigate.
I was raised in Africa and learned that in general African cultural expectations suggest a common respect prevailing between two parties about to embark on a conversation, no matter how trivial or formal or important; a respect that expects there to be an interest in the others’ wellbeing or some enquiry about their family or wherewithal at the least. Speaking about general (usually somewhat obvious) matters is a necessity, be it about the weather or the economy or for instance the apparent wellbeing of the other person’s animal herd can seem to drag out for a while. However, I learned that conversation is a game, like a dance and these nuances are considered to be an important part of “good breeding” (at least among the elders or older generations). Only when there has been an appropriate amount of what we would call “unfreezing” or “respect recognizing relationship building” would the conversation elegantly segue toward the envisaged matter to be discussed. I found that conversation very rarely “went straight to what was to be discussed”. Of course this requires quite some practice of what I wrote in: Patience and Awareness.
So when is enough small talk?
So if smalltalk is considered necessary within good social skills, when is “enough” so that we can (at last) “get into it”? That is never a question that one can give a definitive answer to, is it? Using the above African description as a yardstick, I would say that it is not usually something worth rushing to get through, particularly if that ran the risk of the other party feeling that it was contrived because it is socially expected.
As usual, I would suggest that our intuition is a good place start with. I rely on “my tummy” to tell me when it’s been enough and if the other party doesn’t, that I will start to look for an elegant segue into the purpose of the conversation.
Remembering that if we are considered to have developed good social skills or “people skills”, then it should seem to be easy and enjoyable to talk informally with the other person about things of mutual interest; that we would be interested in them and their background and what they do and that they would similarly be interested in us. This is what I wrote about in Interested or Interesting?.
“Wie Du kommst gegangen, so wirst Du auch empfangen”
My late mum taught me this which loosely translated from the German language suggests that “as we present ourselves to others, so we will be received by them”. And so, our whole demeanour comes into play here. If we are short and curt and impatient to “get to the point”, why would anyone be interested to talk to us in the first place, let alone engage in perfunctory but willing positive and friendly professional interaction? Even if you don’t happen to feel like it, if it is a business conversation, don’t you owe it to yourself and your business to bring some personal connection into the conversation with interest and ENTHUSIASM!, as well as what I wrote in Humour and Laughter and in Smile – it suits you!
How can anyone find an impatient or uptight person interesting or want to engage with them? As I learned in Australia: “get over yourself” or also “get a life…”
How well do you dance the conversation dance?
So let’s say you are in a one on one discussion with another business person that you don’t know much about. After the greeting pleasantries, each would be “feeling the other out” in terms of their “interest to talk”, right? We might choose to “drive” from the outset, in which case we might start with a few more cautious but friendly and “open” questions that could in no way be construed as confronting the other person, but certainly enabling them to display (albeit subtly) that they want to engage with us. Whether and how they did engage would be a useful barometer to assess how we choose to continue to drive the conversation. The amount of active or passive (that is unconscious level “vibes”) input they give is an important signal for us to measure the likely “tone” the conversation might go into and the approach the other person may wish to take. I have learned that careful “listening” to all the signals we can pick up is already very important this early in the conversation.
In choosing the driver approach however of course we need to allow sufficient opportunity for the other to display their interest in us and to ask their questions too, so we don’t dominate, in which case they may “shut down”.
If we feel that the other person wishes to drive, I am usually equally comfortable with that, provided they don’t try to dominate, in which case I would “push back”, always subtly and with a friendly demeanour. That also depends a little on what the meeting is about. If the discussion is about some sort of negotiation for an outcome, then our deliberate Posturing may already want to come into play. But more generally this is where we would be trying to get the other person to start feeling “comfortable” with us.
Can you use the “yes frame”?
However, if the conversation is of a more important and perhaps even a negotiation type one, I like to get the other party into a “yes” frame of mind and will try to ask them three questions to which the answer is more than likely to be a “yes”. “Haven’t we had a lot of rain lately” (if we have) or something of such a general nature may be a good place to start. The next one may go a bit more “businessy” like “isn’t this political vacuum before the general election an interesting dance”? and the final one already more towards the relevant topic we are about to discuss. That way they will already have said “yes” three times, which is known to put us in a more agreeable frame of mind.
And so circumstances will determine the type of positions we take and the manner in which this dance occurs. But please don’t underestimate how important this small-talk part of the dance is.
Our willingness and our ability to engage in small-talk will help both parties relax and “get more comfortable with the other”. Remembering that relationships determine business outcomes, I have learned that by-passing or short-changing this small-talk phase would be at your peril.
The segue from small talk to the guts of it
Watching and dancing through this small-talk actively and with open senses will enable you to choose when it might be time to segue into the intended topic. I have found that quite often both parties will recognize this point around the same time and will usually welcome and respond to good segues. Finding and utilizing appropriate comments that can elegantly lead to the intended topic will usually come quite naturally if you are “switched on”. For instance “as that bus drives past, why don’t we get our conversation on the road?”
Your enthusiasm will also always help here, usually because it is contagious and can influence the other party to be “ready to play” and more willingly too.
So how do we overcome any fear or reticence to do small-talk or how do we get good at this? Practice, but with a purpose.
Let’s perhaps do this in steps:
· What if you were to carefully observe the small-talk dance of the next 10 or so conversations around you? Just observing what transpired or didn’t and noticing for yourself what did and didn’t work?
· And what if you were to set a goal that you wanted to more carefully notice your own small-talk dance you personally engaged in of your next 10 or so conversations after that?
· What if you were to play with a few approaches? What if you went too quickly in some and dragged it out too long in others? The other parties don’t have your script, do they? Which means you’d be able to learn what works, what doesn’t and when. Why? Because you were willing to have a go. This is what I described in Finding the Edge where I emphasized that you can’t find the boundary if you don’t cross it sometime, right?
So what if you did and you recognized more accurately for you what the value of small-talk can be for you in your social and business interactions for you to find your own “when is enough” and that you were able to measure how much better (or worse) others responded to you in your initial conversations?
Isn’t that worth exploring? Go on: “you’ll never, never know, if you never have a go”.