I have a shell to crack with anyone who says that they hate small talk. It’s so hard, they lament. Or, fake–you know, fine for slick corporate schmoozers, but not for (down to earth) me. Or, it’s just plain boring. After all, no one is gripped at the prospect of chatting about the weather, upcoming holiday plans (“got any?”), or how hard it was to get parking for this event. We all want interesting, relevant conversations with our professional contacts, right?
Right. But as any skilled connector knows, what people often (dismissively) brand as small talk plays an essential role in getting to the big talk we want. It gets the juices flowing. It builds rapport. It seeps into the crannies of our first tentative statements to find the commonalities – a similar work interest, a love of film, someone you have in common, someone who actually read the annual report being discussed and also shares concerns about the financial analysis. Practiced artfully, this priming process need not be painful, nor protracted. Practiced clumsily, and you can find yourself trapped in a boring exchange, flailing desperately for a rescue.
Ready to embrace the power of talk that can take you to deeper networking discussions? Consider these ideas for stronger communication:
1. Put your shoulder to the wheel. Interesting conversations don’t just happen. Sure, sometimes we quickly “click” with people we meet, and have no difficulty maintaining an easy rapport. But much more often, that connection takes a bit of effort. Don’t make it your partner’s job to find it, hiding behind the notion that you are shy, bad at small talk, or bored. Be prepared to do some work–get in there and help get things to higher ground.
2. Show a real interest in your partner and their work. What to do, exactly? In my humble view, most of us do well to focus on asking good, open-ended questions, and show that you are really interested in that person and their answers. Ask follow on questions and offer something of yourself and your experience in return. If there’s no immediate connection, or you are struggling with a wide gap in age or experience, don’t panic. Stick to work topics – what they do, the type of clients they work with, what they love and find challenging about their work.
3. Do your best, and then let go. At a networking function, if you are not reaching rapport with someone despite all best efforts, please don’t beat yourself up. It might be them. It might be you. It’s probably the combination of the two of you and your respective frames of mind. I give you permission to politely end the conversation (“Sam, it was good talking to you. It’s nice to get a chance to hear what’s going on in your neck of the woods. I’m going to keep mingling.”) and move on.
4. Some relationships take time. Not all of them will be deep. If you are struggling to make conversation with a colleague or client with whom you will be working regularly, again, please don’t beat yourself up. Keep making the effort, and a natural rapport may come in time. And if it doesn’t, well, be grateful that you have a reliable friend to fall back on: small talk.