Admittedly, I was perplexed and even a bit annoyed by the title of a recent article in Inc. “Science Discovered That Banning Small Talk from Your Conversations Makes You Happier.”
I have always said that small talk leads to big talk and that it paves the way for building a stronger sense of “community”, particularly within an organization. This is critically important these days given that the majority of our interactions are virtual. In fact, it is not unusual for someone to work for a boss they haven’t met in person. A suggestion that limits communication doesn’t make sense.
However, as I began reading beyond the headline, it became clear to me that the thinking or science behind the assertion may have some merit. After all, when small talk becomes a perfunctory almost unconscious exchange of social pleasantries, at best it is a waste of time and at worst a painfully awkward experience.
That said, I believe that we have to redefine the meaning of small talk. We need to move it from a social necessity of forced meaningless dialogue to become a powerful tool for genuine engagement and relationship building. In other words, we have to learn to communicate with a purpose and not just to simply fill the void of silence with words.
In this post, I will share with you the three essential tips for turning small talk into “BIG” or meaningful talk and in the process help you to elevate your relationships to a whole new level.
- Understand that people like to talk about themselves
At the risk of stating the obvious, people like to talk about themselves. The real question I have to ask you is if you know why? Or as a Psychology Today article put it; “Why, in a world full of ideas to discover, develop, and discuss, do people spend the majority of their time talking about themselves?” The answer is simple – it makes people feel important.
Given the above, the words of Maya Angelou regarding how “People may not remember exactly what you did, or what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel,” takes on a whole new potency. When you encourage others to talk about themselves, you will tap into their reservoir of good feelings.
- Ask leading questions that are original and personalized. For example, asking someone what they do for a living won’t cut it. Instead ask them what’s on their bucket list that they would like to check off, or what gives them the greatest satisfaction outside of work? In short, be genuinely curious without being intrusive and you’ll create a much more positive experience with others.
- Actively seek common ground
At the onset of my workshop last week, I was chatting with George, a participant who mentioned that he loved a little-known off-the-beaten-track restaurant in town. As he described it, my ears perked up, immediately smiled and said: “I know that place and I go there often.” It was a great moment of connection. Think back to when that has happened to you. It could be a movie, a song, a book, or even where you went on vacation. Sharing similar experiences creates a bond of comfort and familiarity that opens the door to expanding rapport and trust.
Will you always find something in common with everyone? No. In fact, science has proven that opposites do not attract. This means that you can’t manufacture common ground, but you can create it when you identify common values and views of the world. While the following tip may at first seem contradictory to my support of small talk, in the context of what I just said, it will make perfect sense:
- Adopt the five-minute rule. If you have spent time talking with someone and there’s no connection, trust your gut and move on. Don’t force things or feel that you are a politician having to campaign for votes. Leave on a good note regardless by saying that it was nice to chat with them.
- Be willing to be real (your authentic self)
I remember reading that being true to ourselves is about having the courage to define your own version of what it is to live a successful life. I like that, and I think that it is especially true when it comes to small talk because this is usually the first talk anyone has with you.
For most people, being someone other than your “true self” seems disingenuous and feels like grueling work. Having to wear this facade comes through as being uncomfortable and ill at ease. It’s like trying always to say the right thing or never wanting to say anything that comes across wrong or offensive. What pressure! Can you imagine the weight of having to focus on what someone may think about you constantly? No wonder people do not like small talk or for that matter any talk.
The fact is that some people will like you and some people won’t. Don’t muddy the waters trying to be all things to all people. Simply remember that we all have strengths and weaknesses. Celebrate your authentic self by acting naturally and let your true talk guide you because when you do, you will connect with the right people for you.
So, what is the tip? Here it is:
- BE YOU, because no one else can.
The Golden Rule
When it comes to small talk, there is a golden rule: You have to first take an interest to be interesting to others. Having this attitude means that your only agenda is to get to know someone beyond a cursory greeting because it is through building this positive rapport that greater and as yet unknown opportunities will follow.
So, go out there and make small talk – BIG!