The Problem with Small Talk

“I am fine with technical, important conversations I just can’t do small talk”

This sentence was said by one of my clients today. I was struck by his tone and the almost disparaging way he phrased ‘small talk’. He made it sound small, unimportant, insignificant and almost irrelevant. There in lies the problem.

If he thinks of it as unimportant then why would he bother doing it?

I don’t find small talk uninteresting. I like talking to strangers. In cafes, on trains, at bus stops. I always think there is something interesting to find out. I like the cliché; a stranger is a friend I haven’t met yet.

My client, on the other hand, finds small talk difficult, he doesn’t know what to say, he can’t see the point of asking people what they did at the weekend or last night. When pushed a bit harder he told me he found it difficult, his mind goes blank when faced with a stranger, he doesn’t know what to say. In fact he feels nervous or worried about looking foolish or being too intrusive, or that he might say something stupid … I wonder if he also found it hard to get dates as a teenager?

So, its not that he can’t see the point, it’s that it makes him uncomfortable so he diminishes it. And yet, he wants to be able to do it and envies people in his business who do it so easily. They seem to get on, able to influence, to progress their careers so easily… to get dates.

For me, it’s about 2 things;

  • Making the first move
  • Being interested, not interesting

Making the first move – we are all a bit nervous and wish someone would make the first move. Most people will respond positively when approached. Feeling the discomfort and doing it anyway is the key. Yes, you feel nervous or uncomfortable, so what? Say something, say hi, how are you? Just make the first move and you’ll get a response. Perhaps not the one you want but you’ll get a response. People want to feel good about them selves and another person showing an interest in them is one of the ways we feel good about our selves.

Be interested not interesting – It is not about you regaling people with your adventures or stories about your weekend, it is about you asking questions about them. I remember leaving a party recently and telling my wife how nice a man called Fredrick was. She asked me about him and I couldn’t remember anything significant, he spent the whole time being interested in me. Asking me questions. He was interested, not interesting.

Business is built on relationships and relationships are not based on technical conversations, they are based on trust and understanding.

Call to Action

Recently I got a piece of business from a person I spoke to on a train. It was a conversation that started with small talk.

I challenge you to initiate a conversation with a stranger, just begin. Comment on the weather, mention their colourful socks, talk about the delay to the train or enquire about the significance of a tattoo they have (I’ve done all of these things by the way) and see what happens.

Make small talk a big thing in your life, you’ll be surprised by the result.