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Making business small talk meaningful

Most people don’t like small talk – we’re all far too busy and important, and just want to get on with whatever it is we’re doing. The thing is, every person we meet has the potential to impact our lives in some way.

Defined as informal discourse that doesn’t cover any functional topic, small talk is one of life’s necessities. Despite appearing to have no real purpose, it is a bonding ritual and helps us define relationships between different people. Whether they’re friends, colleagues, family members or new acquaintances, small talk has the potential to help start a conversation that may not normally exist.

Notice how I said it may help. As in life, there are no guarantees that a spot of chit chat will be engaging or help you connect with another person. In many cases, it can be stilted and awkward and can actually limit the avenues a conversation may go down, rendering it dull and meaningless.

In an industry where communicating with people is integral — the pervasiveness of technology aside — being able to converse is fundamental not only to our career success, but our personal lives too. Whether you’re at a networking event with no clue how to work a room, talking to a client who seems hesitant to speak or at a social function next to someone you barely know, understanding the art of having a conversation is priceless.

So how do you turn small talk into something meaningful?

1. Share a part of yourself

Questions are the driving force behind any conversation — without them, the chance of words being exchanged is significantly diminished. Traditionally, questions in small-talk situations are short, to the point and prompt those replying to answer in kind. For example:

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Lionel: How are you?
Andrea: I’m good. You?
Lionel: Not too bad.

And thus the conversation ends before it really had a chance to begin. To engage with someone you need to share a part of yourself. Think back to all the great conversations you’ve had in your life. You can be sure that in each of them, a personal detail was the spark that kept that conversation alive. Instead of answering with a run-of-the-mill answer, try sharing a part of yourself and see where the conversation goes.

Lionel: How are you?
Andrea: Really good actually. I spent the weekend trawling through YouTube, found a video on how to reupholster a chair and did it.
Lionel: Wow! That’s amazing. I’ve always wanted to do something like that. How long did it take?

While only an example, you can see how providing a more involved answer to what is accepted as a mundane, throwaway question provokes an entirely different, more engaged response. Try it next time and see what happens.

2. Ask better questions

Often, when we’re meeting someone new or someone we don’t really know that well, we tend to fill the air with those ‘How are you?’ sorts of questions, without really expecting a worthwhile response. And while the previous example highlights ways to counter this type of question, a far better option is to ask better questions.

Cynthia: What do you do for work?
Paul: I’m a claims manager with such and such company.
Cynthia: Okay, cool. That must be interesting?

We can see how asking for answers gives us bland, uninspiring responses. People are comprised of their stories, so try asking open-ended questions and see what happens.

Cynthia: What’s the most satisfying thing about your work?
Paul: Honestly, I think it’s being able to help people get back on their feet after a disaster. I get a real sense of accomplishment knowing I was there to help them through a tough time and I’m genuinely surprised at the gratitude and appreciation people have.
Cynthia: I know what you mean. I remember watching this documentary about …

As illustrated, the differences between Cynthia and Paul’s first exchange and the second are dramatic. Not only did Cynthia’s question in the second exchange elicit a more engaging answer, but it allowed her to follow up with a more engaging follow up that would help propel the conversation along. Next time you’re the one who has to occupy that dead space in a conversation, try fishing for a story by asking an open-ended question. Other questions could be:

• If there was anything you would want for lunch, what would it be?
• What’s the strangest thing about where you grew up?
• What’s the most interesting thing that happened to you today?
• How’d you end up in your line of work?
• What does your name mean? What would you like it to mean?
• If you weren’t doing this, what would you rather be doing?
• What makes you get up in the morning?
• Who do you think is the most fascinating person in this room?
• What does this room remind you of?

3. Don’t be a parrot

Be it talk of weather, the kids or recent travel, small talk often ends abruptly, with one person inevitably agreeing numbly with the other. This phenomenon is called mirroring or parroting and usually occurs when, in our efforts to be polite and agreeable, we respond to questions by echoing people’s observations.

Pauline: It’s so cold today!
Ben: I know, it’s freezing.

The above example highlights a very common conversation killer. Ben’s bland and agreeable response has left little room for the conversation to move. Instead of repeating someone’s observation try enhancing it or, better yet, use it as a way to lever into another conversation entirely.

Pauline: It’s so cold today!
Ben: Yep. Reminds me of the time I got my tongue stuck to a power pole and needed emergency services to rescue me.
Pauline: (Laughing) Oh my God! How did that happen? Were you hurt?
Ben: I was in primary school and we’d seen something similar happen in an episode of Tom and Jerry and I was dared to try it. My mum was very displeased by it all.
Pauline: I can imagine.
Ben: Yeah, the worst part was that I couldn’t bear to eat an icy-pole for the next two years!

As you can see, Ben’s use of the initial topic to share an engaging but absurd part of himself kick-started the conversation and got the two of them talking.

Small talk is an integral part of any conversation and, with some tweaking, can be a great way for you to change the dynamics of what could have been a very brief and uninspiring encounter with another person.

What have you found works when it comes to striking up a conversation? Tell us below.

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