The mastering of small talk is a necessary skill in the modern business environment. It adds to and builds on the Rapport Based Approach, a method Omega has been teaching for the best part of a decade. It is not the intention of this article to provide a step by step guide on small talk as that will lead to over-scripted and stilted conversations which are far removed from the whole point of small talk.
Small talk at its absolute basis level should be intuitive and is essential in building relationships through the sharing of personal experiences and developing commonality – in other words areas of shared interest.
Some find small talk easy and natural, but others need to work on it. This has a lot to do with personality types, but this doesn’t mean that it is off limits for certain people. We can all master the art of small talk.
However before we look at this, a quick mention of the difference between curiosity and intrusiveness is necessary. Intrusiveness by definition is invasive and makes a person feel like they are in an inquisition. Naturally such people will withdraw from conversations and become defensive and much more difficult to communicate with. Curiosity on the other hand is to probe enough to show that you really are interested without overstepping the mark.
The first sign of defensiveness is often deflection and this should be recognised immediately by the wise listener. However it comes across, it communicates I don’t particularly want to talk about it. Change the subject and move on. Failure to do so will only increase the person’s defensiveness; which will become avoidance and later hostility.
Small talk is often considered to be banal and wasteful and thus many people don’t invest in it, but this is fundamentally misunderstanding what small talk is and the value that it places on interpersonal communication. Many envisage small talk to be the domain of tedious conversations about the weather or other pointless topics. In my view this is not small talk, it is hot air that soon evaporates into the air. Real small talk, to be meaningful, has to have a direction, and a point. It is about discovering those areas of commonality already mentioned so that relationships can be built on the grounds of shared benefit.
Many feel inhibited when having to make small talk, at best it can be considered to be wasteful and at worst it can be intimidating. Who am I to talk? I have no common subjects. What if I embarrass myself? What if they don’t like me?
These barriers are a creation of your own mind and nothing more. The root course of these barriers is frequently stress and it is important that this be overcome. Recognition that barriers are self-imposed is half of the battle and if the individuals you engage with don’t like you – so what? (Their loss!) Self-esteem often plays a key role and it is important that an individual understands their own value (this is further discussed in another Omega article).
When engaging in small talk it is important to be positive and understand that small talk isn’t superficial; it helps create an atmosphere that leads to real dialogues and develops partnerships. A negative approach creates a vibe that will easily be picked up on. One further comment on attitude, as hinted at above, is that it needs to be natural, in other words really be interested. Just going through the motions is as bad as having a negative attitude as it will quickly be discerned by most. Real interest on your part will generate greater interest on their part.
So without further ado let’s move on to how to develop small talk skills.
In the end you are looking for the other person to share something of themselves with you so it is logical that this should start with questions. Ask the other person questions and find out about what interests them and naturally based on their responses share something of your own story and experience – this has the added benefit of making it a two way process and not making it look like an inquisition. Consider the types of questions you ask. It is generally understood that open questions are much better than questions that only elicit single word answers. However in my experience sometimes a mixture of both can be just as constructive. The closed question leads to a view being expressed which then can be further explored enabling both parties to discover more about each other.
In addition to using questions make your initial encounters about them and create an environment that encourages their sharing. Make them the centre of your attention. Volunteer personal information that you think they may find interesting but be careful to ensure that it remains a conversation – a real dialogue rather than a monologue. However, for your part avoid single word answers unless you are deflecting (remember people deflect for genuine reasons).
‘How are you?’ Simple answer ‘I’m fine thanks,’ but maybe you can add something more. ‘Really looking forward to Friday though as we are getting away for the weekend.’
They may pick up on that and discuss the weekend or even if they don’t and the conversation has moved on you will have demonstrated an openness that will work in your favour. These little snippets of information work as bait to encourage others to ask questions and engage further with you.
Finally it is important that you read between the lines and recognise deflection and the interest levels of the other person. You have not enslaved them so don’t be selfish in monopolising their time. Pick up on the signals they are sending and it is better to finish on a high and leave them with their curiosity stirred, but not fully satisfied so they come back for more.
© Richard Horton, Omega Support Services 2020