A quick search about small talk and effective small talk reveals lists of questions, articles on the “necessary evil” of it and hacks to make it easier.
What if you tried to personalize it instead of trying to avoid it? Instead of arming yourself with a list random questions or looking for an easy way out, what if you prepared for the conversation and walked away from the interaction having accomplished something?
If you consider small talk a necessary evil of course you’re going to try and avoid it. If it’s always awkward you’re not going to initiate it and if you think it’s a waste of time you won’t bother putting yourself in position to have the conversation in the first place.
Small talk can be all of those things. Often because it’s not the conversation we prepare for.
We prepare for the big moments and the “real” conversation. We think small talk is something we endure or blow off altogether.
Except it can also be the most pivotal moment in any conversation. Small talk isn’t just a conversational norm to fill time it’s where relationships and connections start. So instead of looking for a hack or a way around it, consider a checklist to make sure you’re prepared and maximizing the opportunity.
Here’s my small talk check list:
Simply put I need to know what I’m trying to get out of the interaction. Small talk for the purposes of building relationships inside the locker room is very different than small talk with an Uber driver to fill time.
You don’t stumble upon success.
If I don’t know what I’m trying to get out of a conversation how will I know if I’m successful? The objective also determines how long the conversation lasts. Small talk can last 5 minutes or 15 seconds, but if I don’t know what I’m trying to accomplish it’s more likely the conversation will last longer than I wanted and get awkward.
My top three small talk objectives at work are: initiating a relationship, furthering a relationship by building on a previous exchange, reconnecting after a period of time. (Following the All-Star break, for example, or after an off-season.)
Bring something to the table in a conversation. Don’t expect the other person to do all the work. If you want to be entertained or have an engaging conversation do your part. Instead of relying on lists of random canned questions, choose a relevant conversation starter that will help you reach your objective. Sports is my go-to in business interactions, but when I’m in the locker room I’m more likely to talk about restaurants, TV shows or travel. (Every week I publish a list of sports conversation starters, it’s as much for me to stay on top of topics and headlines as anything else.)
I know this takes effort. At the beginning of 2022 when I was getting back into locker rooms for the first time since the start of the pandemic, I actually made checklists of who I wanted to talk to that day and what I was going to talk to them about. It might sound like I was overthinking, but I assure you it was better than the alternative which was a handful of unsatisfying, unproductive and awkward exchanges.
I’m either listening for a piece of information that I can use in a follow up conversation, or a piece of information needed for next steps. (An interview I’m trying to schedule or a project at work, for example.) The information I need is directly tied to the objective I’m trying to meet.
Successful small talk is an exchange, a back-and-forth. It’s a starting point for bigger conversations. When you share a piece of information you give the other person in the exchange a chance to know you and create a follow up opportunity. It could be as simple as mentioning you’re heading to a baseball game in a conversation about weekend plans. In other words, don’t forget to be an active participant in the conversation
Being more intentional and more prepared for small talk makes it more productive and with any luck – more enjoyable. Instead of looking for a way out, find ways to jump into a conversation and make small talk.