‘Tis the season of goodwill to all men (and women). It is also the season where you will be put in social situations you’ve managed to avoid all year, with people who you either know and like, know and don’t like, know and don’t feel you have anything in common with. Or perhaps don’t know and don’t want to know.
Whatever the occasion, you will be expected to interact with people who you may not have at the top of your Christmas card list….
If we could wave a magic wand which enables you to engage comfortably in these less than usual networking meetings, Christmas parties or family events, would you be interested? The good news is that you possess everything you need already to do this, and all it takes is a little reminder to take us back in time to what we used to do instinctively as little children, before we got all self conscious. When we were curious about the world and the people within it. Before ‘life’ happened!
So let’s make sure we understand what we’re talking about here.
What do I mean by small talk?
And why do some people say they ‘hate it’?
I suppose it starts with how you define yourself in terms of extroversion or introversion. If you are a naturally chatty talkative person (extrovert) then you probably enjoy the social season and can get in touch and give me your tips for ‘small talk’. But if you are uncomfortable talking to anyone, and would rather compose your interactions via email or text, then you might feel a little unprepared to talk to weird Uncle Al, or nutty Nora, wife of Adam in accounts.
Small talk you could say, is the supposedly small social interaction which happens when you first meet or are introduced to someone. They might seem ‘small’ but they are a necessary first step, helping us decide whether we want to continue the contact. Based on how comfortable they make us feel. Simple comments and ground breakers are all that’s required at this stage.
Some people say they hate it because it all seems so shallow and pointless. Of course, many of us prefer the more rewarding conversations that share values and feelings and make a connection with someone, but even those conversations had to start with something, however trivial. What we don’t like I think is the idea of ‘wasting time’ talking to people. BUT if we consider that everyone has something to share with us about themselves which might increase our empathy or understanding about the world in general, then really, there’s no such thing as a wasted conversation.
Listening to someone properly is an act of kindness. The gift you have given that person in feeling heard will stay with them. Possibly for life. Can you remember when someone has unexpectedly seemed genuinely interested in you and really seemed to have heard what you’ve said?
So this nirvana can seem a long way from ‘small talk’. However, I’ve come to see that even the classic British small talk about the weather enables us to assess whether we like the way the person treats us. Are they respectful and giving us attention or are they looking over our shoulder? Do they interrupt every time we say something and direct the conversation back to themselves or do, they ask another question, asking us to elaborate on something we just said?
This ‘small talk’ helps us decide if we want to continue sharing the space with them. But what paralyses us perhaps is that we are all aware that everyone makes snap decisions about us in the first few seconds. (As indeed do we about other people). So rather than make the wrong impression by for example, saying the ‘wrong thing’ we might prefer to avoid the whole thing and not risk someone’s displeasure with us. People used to describe themselves as shy. Now it’s called ‘social anxiety’. However, there comes a point in all of our lives where we cannot hide behind being shy or anxious, and we cannot simply ignore this first important step. We have to ‘engage’.
How you do this is actually essentially simple. We need to forget about ourselves and focus on the other person. Yes, it really is that simple. Yet most of us are self interested and this doesn’t come naturally.
However, it’s worth considering as it removes the need to have a witty one liner up our sleeves or some amazing news to impart. In fact, if we look at it, having something impressive to say about yourself is a recipe for disaster. How would you react if someone started talking about themselves as their opener? Unasked that is? What I am trying to say is, we don’t need to worry about saying the wrong thing, or indeed having anything ‘to say’ about ourselves, because the universal truth is that no one is interested, in that moment, in us. They are obsessed with themselves and hoping that we like them. So we are preoccupied with whether we fit in and whether the other person likes us, and they are too. Someone has to take the lead here and help things along, and that person could be you!
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be liked. It’s the fundamental principle that our society is based upon – finding our tribe and being accepted within it. Loners are not governable. Society wants us to want to fit in. And it makes most of us happier to feel that we do fit in.
We are all people pleasers by instinct. From that first moment our smile generated a returned smile there’s action and reward right there. And it never leaves us. Some of us do things which do not help ourselves in our lives, in order to please others. But that’s another story.
So in summary:
Forget yourself; focus on the needs of the other person.
Leave your ego at the door.
Smile as you walk up to someone – you’ll be amazed at how often it’s returned. It also ‘shows your hand’ and indicates that you are friend not foe. We all need a little reassurance with first encounters and we’re all second guessing people’s motives. Smiling (and if you can, looking them in the eye) makes it easy for them to relax and abandon flight or fight reflex!
Enjoy the liberation of listening. If you don’t feel confident talking first, you could sidle up to a group who are already talking, and just listen and nod/laugh in the right place. People love a good listener because you become their audience. And we all love a good audience. It makes us feel special and encouraged to continue. In time, you might find yourself naturally drifting into the conversation.
Just let it flow. Basically, don’t worry about it. If you want to you can even say ‘I never know what to say at these sort of parties/events’, which will almost certainly generate a knowing nod and solidarity with the person you have ‘opened up’ to. They will feel the compliment of seeing the real you and again, the ice is broken.
Ask open ended questions. If you’re feeling like you can cope with saying an opener, simple things can start you off ‘How do you know (the host)?’ ‘How many people do you know here?’ What have you been up to since we last met?’
‘What’ and ‘How’ are particularly effective. If you find you are getting yes and no answers, don’t think ‘they are being hard work’, it’s actually that you are asking the wrong type of questions, ones that only generate a ‘closed’ yes or no response. Focus on listening properly to the other person, it will make them feel special.
Be curious. Follow up their answers with other questions if they don’t ask you one back and just go with the flow. The ice has been broken. How quickly you delve into ‘interesting’ questions is up to you, but for people much older than me (with whom I used to feel I had nothing in common) I am always interested to know what advice they would give someone of my age (people love giving advice). Asking about the changes they’ve seen in their lifetimes and which have been the most interesting/positive or even negative and problematic for them is always a winner. There’s a chance you’ll be genuinely fascinated by their life stories!
Open your heart, enable other people to tell their stories and notice how you feel more connected with everyone and everything around you! Yes, it’s the season of goodwill! Hope you have a good one!