Make small talk great again

In a world full of talkers, perhaps the greatest gift you can give another person is your undivided attention. Some ideas for transforming our experience of small talk.

“Act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.”

- Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785)

As an introverted lawyer, I always dreaded small talk. Those interminable after-work soirees spent making inane and disingenuous conversation with strings of people whose faces all started to look the same by evening’s end. “I must be missing the point,” I often thought as I pictured myself at home in my pyjamas with a good book.

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Photo by Leah Kelley from Pexels

When I became a trainer and coach, I quickly realised that I was not alone in my fear and misunderstanding of this small beast writ large – many of my clients secretly had the same fear.

The dread of small talk is also partly culturally determined. In Germany, where I do most of my work, small talk perhaps comes even less naturally than in the Anglo-Saxon world and is sometimes seen as an unpleasant, but necessary hurdle to be overcome before getting down to business.

Are so many of us missing the point? I believe we are.

Perhaps you and I will never feel entirely comfortable with the prospect of a yet another work function or conference, but there are some concrete steps we can take to re-frame the idea and purpose of small talk and make it great again:

  • Treat other people as ends in themselves.
  • Be a great listener, not a small talker.
  • Give every topic the respect it deserves.
  • End on a high note.

Treat other people as ends in themselves

The quote at the start of this post is the moral philosopher, Immanuel Kant’s ‘Formula for Humanity.’ In short, he believed we should never use other people solely to achieve our own goals.

I think so many of us detest small talk because we are acutely aware of the fundamental dishonesty involved. We go into a conference or other event seeing other people as the sum of their titles and achievements and, most importantly, as a path to achieving what we want (a promotion, a referral or even just validation). Worse, we suspect other people of having exactly the same motives towards us.

What if we spoke to each other without any preconceptions or motives, but only with a sense of genuine curiosity about each other as people, as other human beings with similar hopes and fears, and with individual ideas and perspectives to share regardless of their station in life?

Be a great listener, not a small talker

We spend far too much time in our interactions with others talking about ourselves or waiting for the other person to give us cues for what we should say next, so we can sound intelligent or accomplished. This is hearing, not listening.

So often during coaching, I will role-play a small-talk scenario and include a key piece of personal information (for example, ‘We went hiking yesterday’) only to have my conversation partner completely ignore the point or add that he or she likes hiking too and proceed to speak for the next few minutes about his or her most recent hiking experiences.

Why not ask a question instead? “What do you like about hiking?” “Where have you hiked before?” “How often do you go hiking?” Often, the answer will surprise you and be the gateway to a more meaningful conversation with fewer awkward pauses and, more importantly, serve to create a genuine connection with the other person.

In a world full of talkers, perhaps the greatest gift you can give another person is your undivided attention.

Give every topic the respect it deserves

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Photo by Adrianna Calvo from Pexels

The inspiration for this post came from a beautifully-written piece on the art of small talk (outside a business context) from the School of Life in London. They have this to say:

“The skilled conversationalist doesn’t insist that atmospheric or traffic conditions or where a person has been at the seaside are inherently unworthy of discussion. They know that what a person feels about a cloudy afternoon might be a highway to their soul or that their experiences around parking might provide clues to authority or their relations with their parents. They are not put off by having to work with humble matter; they are deft enough to use whatever is to hand.

I really recommend reading the full post, ‘What to do at parties if you hate small talk.’

End on a high note

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Too many of us leave a small-talk interaction as if we were trying to escape a burning building. “Oh my, look at the time. Bye!” “Oh look, there’s Jack. I must run.” “I really need a drink now. See you later!”

All the good work you’ve done during a conversation can be instantly undone by a rude or abrupt departure, or a fake excuse.

A measure of empathy is needed here: how would I feel if someone did the same thing to me?

Once again,a genuine expression of respect and appreciation for the conversation you’ve just had can go a long way towards cementing your relationship with the other person.

“I’ve really enjoyed speaking to you. Maybe we can catch up again later and pick up where we left off.”

And on that note, I leave you.


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