Small talk: Who needs it, right?! Well… we all do.
I was born hating small talk. HATING IT!!! As a kid growing up, I’d say: “Oh my gawd, why do I need to engage in it? Why can’t we just talk about whatever we need to talk about? It’d be SO much simpler!”
My dad, who worked in a financial services office environment his entire career and, as I remember it, met business acquaintances “for cocktails” when I was growing up would explain to me: “Yeah, I know what you mean; I don’t like it either, I’d much rather get down to business, but small talk is just one of those things you gotta do.” OK, maybe so. But I think we can “do” better.
Now, many year after getting that small talk primer from my dad, I put a finer point on that advice: It’s not just that you better hold your nose and take your “small-talk medicine” in order to fit in (at work or elsewhere). It’s that, if you currently hate small talk, you can learn to engage in it in a way that fits your style, that produces results, and that you’ll actually enjoy! And here’s the key to doing that:
Get outside of yourself
As humans, we can sometimes get consumed by thoughts of ourselves. How do I look? What do they think of ME? How wisely am I using MY time? All good questions, but they can also weigh us down with self-consciousness. And if you’re a person given to self-reflection and contemplation (as many introverts who hate small talk are), you can obsess about these inward-looking thoughts to the exclusion of other, more helpful thoughts.
As I think of myself as that shy kid who answered “no thanks” when a friend’s mom offered him something to drink as he visited their house, or as a still shy adolescent who’d prefer to address someone only if they addressed him first, I realize I’ve come a long way. I’m still an introvert (in that I need to retreat and be alone to recharge my internal batteries), but somewhere along the way I discovered the joy of asking questions–a practice that gets you “out of yourself” and focused on others.
Ask questions that interest you
In asking questions, you still have to be mindful to not stay inside yourself. After all, you could consume yourself with asking the right question, or a smart question, or worse–the perfect question.
So what’s a good question to ask? The one to which you’d be tickled to get an answer to. It’s that simple. But again, you have to get outside yourself. You have to open yourself up to what might be interesting, or beautiful, or insightful that might come from someone else. And if we hate small talk, sometimes we forget to think about what might be great to talk about because we’re so invested in how much we hate the process.
Reading a book or an article about small talk could help. But be careful. If you adopt from a book some “go to” questions or topics that don’t really resonate with you, it’ll show in your small talk interactions. It won’t work. What works? Being genuine. A book can help spark some thought about things to talk about, but ultimately, the interest in talking asking a question or discussing a topic in small talk needs to come from a genuine place of interest that reflects who you are. Otherwise, it could come off as a desperate attempt to fill empty space or fit in. And when you “come back to yourself” to reflect on the interaction, you won’t want to feel that others perceived you that way.
This week: If you struggle with small talk or just want to do it better, take 10 minutes to think about the next opportunity you’ll have to engage in small talk. Think about what thoughts or opinions you’d most like to hear from the people you’ll talk to in that encounter. Think about what would interest you, stimulate you, even fascinate you. In considering these questions, you’ll zero in on topics or areas that reflect your true, genuine interests. And if you get outside of yourself and ask others to discuss them in small talk, you’ll engage in a way that fits your style, that gets results, and that you’ll even enjoy. Imagine that!
Guillermo Villar is principal coach with Cambio Coaching. He helps high-achieving individuals and teams communicate with intention to get the business results they want. If you’re interested in working with Guillermo, sign up for a free meeting to explore how he can help.