Master the art of small talk
September 12, 2014
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Making pleasantries doesn’t have to be torture.
If such a thing as hell exists, I imagine it’s a place where sinners are abandoned forever in a room of their nightmare. In my case, it’d be an elevator ride – a never-ending elevator ride – during which I’d be forced to engage in small talk with colleagues. While others are present to hear every excruciating utterance.
I concede I’m an introvert, which might explain why I find vacuous office chitchat so nauseating. Or maybe it’s not even an introverted thing. It could simply be I’m just not very good at it. Either way, I struggle in a way not dissimilar to the uncomfortable character in this clip.
First, let’s put a few things in order. This is not a criticism of small talk. The opposite, actually. People who practice it in workplaces are perceived as being more trustworthy, collaborative and kind. This was demonstrated in a new study presented at last month’s Academy of Management conference, which showed engaging in small talk prior to a negotiation reaped greater financial dividends. For men, anyway. Women, not so much.
Those findings, though, are an anomaly. The trend in previous research is clear that both genders, when they dedicate time to insignificant discourse, generate significant benefits. There are a number of studies, for instance, showing how people who find it difficult to do small talk, such as those with an intellectual disability or those who can’t speak English, are disadvantaged as a result.
I’m envious of colleagues who are masterful it. I know I should talk to people about their weekend even though my care factor for what they got up to is zero-point-something. I should listen to what happened on The Bachelor even though I’d rather watch a skin infection spreading than a minute of that show. I should be interested in the adorable acts of a coworker’s child even though those updates are one reason I fled Facebook.
So, for those like me who are too shy, too awkward, too bored or too incompetent to engage in small talk, here’s a selection of tips courtesy of Debra Fine from her bestseller, The Fine Art of Small Talk, published a decade ago.
Talk to a stranger: Rather than waiting to be introduced to someone, just walk up to a colleague you haven’t met and start chatting. Make an effort, too, to remember their name and to insert it occasionally into the conversation.
Arm yourself with icebreakers: A few suggestions from the author include:
“How did you come up with this idea?”
“What do you see as the coming trends in your business?”
“What’s the most difficult part of your job?”
She suggests a question should always be prefaced with a statement so that it doesn’t sound too full on. The first bullet point, for example, can begin with “I love your idea”, before leading to an enquiry about it.
Infiltrate a group of people: Fine recommends this can be done by standing close to them and making it obvious you’re listening. Then, and this is the important bit, be cognisant of signs they want you to join them, such as when they start “asking your opinion”. An easy one to miss, that one.
She has many other ideas, many of them useful. Ask open-ended questions (those that can’t be answered with just one word). Ask probing questions (those where you seek to hear more about a particular point). And observe what people are wearing, how they’re acting, where they’re working, and ask questions about that stuff as well.
There’s a theme here, I think. It seems to be linked to the old truism that we have two ears and one mouth for a reason.
Are you good at small talk? What’s your secret?
Follow James Adonis on Twitter: @jamesadonis