The holidays tend to be about family, but New Year’s parties typically encompass a broader circle of friends, colleagues, and strangers – which contributes to the anxiety many people feel about parties in general. And the reason, for many of us, can be characterized in two words: small talk.
My dad was a great salesman, an extremely successful entrepreneur and businessman, but hated small talk – at least of the kind that accompanied non-business situations (assuming there really is any such thing as a non-business situation). My mom, on the other hand, could teach a master class in small talk. And I’ve come to understand that if my mom had had business aspirations of the kind that fueled my father, she probably would have been more successful than he, simply because of her remarkable skill at small talk.
Mom’s ability to broaden her network of contacts in virtually any situation that includes other people – I’m talking the doctors office, the grocery store, her many volunteering efforts – is legendary. She literally makes friends everywhere. The fact that her “agenda,” such as it is, has more to do with social business than commercial business, is beside the point. When asked what makes her so good at meeting people – at the icebreakers and small talk that so readily paralyze or bore the rest of us – her answer is both simple and genius:
“I’m really very interested in other people.”
Not everyone can get out of their own way in social situations even if they are genuinely interested in other people. Still others are just not that interested! And that’s okay. But if your business depends to some extent or at some point on engaging the interest, cooperation, and facilitation of other people, it’s vital to appreciate the value of the social currency we call small talk.
How valuable is it? Neuroscience says it’s critical. Breaking down skepticism and fear, putting people at ease, is the only doorway to trust, which is the foundation for one of the most essential emotional triggers associated with cooperation, support, and decision-making:
The Friendship Trigger
Relationships are more than rapport, and friendship is more than friendliness, but icebreakers and small talk are the garden gate. And if you’re in a business – or at a point in your business – where you need to build networks, you’ll want access to a lot of gardens to leverage your chances for a bountiful crop.
So, what can we do to be more effective in those awkward first-meeting moments?
SMALL TALK FOR BIG GAINS
Receive others rather than present yourself.
Stop worrying about the impression you’ll make and instead concern yourself with making the other person feel comfortable. There’s nothing more appealing than someone who conveys an interest in you. Be that person. Be open and welcoming. Beam.
In a media driven world of information technology we’ve become so accustomed to the passive acquisition of content that we’re losing our inclination to ask questions. Be an investigator. It’s not intrusive, it’s interested.
Replace anxiety with compassion.
The moment you feel that twinge of anxiety upon walking into a room of strangers, make a conscious commitment to feeling compassion for others. It will not only put you at ease, it will draw others to you, and put you in the right frame of mind for engaging them.
Listen and reflect.
It takes a certain amount of courage, a leap of faith, to resist the common temptation to formulate what you’re going to say rather than to to truly listen and absorb what others are saying. Try it. You may be surprised at how much easier and more effective it is. Reflecting is simply the technique of restating – sometimes spinning or interpreting – what the other person has said. This accomplishes two important things: It’s shows you’re listening and it keeps them talking.
Set aside judgment.
You’re not going to like everyone. Keep in mind that some of your own inclination to discriminate is based in your own insecurities. When you are first meeting people, give them a wide berth. You never know who’ll they’ll turn out to be, or how potentially important they could be to your business.
Happy New Year!