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Small talk, big impact

November 04, 2007

Hello again,
To communicate is risky, to not communicate is riskier (Anonymous)

Making small talk when you meet somebody for the first time is partly ritual, partly a social game, but it is essential for establishing rapport. Get it right and you pave the way...

...for harmonious relationships, get it wrong and you can create suspicion, doubt and mistrust. And, of course, you can jeopardise your future business dealings. Small talk is a particular form of communication in which we send and receive a lot of signals in a short time. It is not just about what we say but also about our body language and our listening skills.

With small talk there are several stages through which the conversation must pass to help the participants move from being strangers to having some vital information about each other on which to base their future meetings and dealings. It begins, of course, with introductions. Either a third party introduces you or your introduce yourself. Remember that the greeting, “how do you do?” is not a real question. The reply is to repeat the question and it should be accompanied by a firm handshake, a smile and eye contact. This is reserved only for introductions. The question “how are you?” —although equally rhetorical—is used only for people you already know. And, while we’re on that topic, the answer to “how are you?” is a simple: “I’m well/fine/good”. The other person really does not wish to know about the effect of foreign food on your digestive system, or about the flu bug that you just can’t shake off.

Once the introductions have been made—and make sure you get the other person’s name right—you can move on to the next phase. This should be an exchange of some simple information. Exchange is the key here. It is important to take turns in swapping information. You need to listen as well as talk, and when it’s your turn to talk, keep it short. Imagine you are hitting a ball back and forth across a net. A good opening gambit is to ask if the other person has been here before. If it turns out to be their first trip, you have a platform for exchanging impressions of the place. If they know it well, you can compare notes about hotels, restaurants, places to visit, the climate. Remember to keep it light. Don’t broach any controversial topics or rise to the bait of expressing strong opinions.

If you have a lot of people to meet, that may well be the end of that conversation as you move on to somebody else. But don’t forget, even after such a brief exchange, to close in a friendly manner. Say something that makes the other person feel appreciated, such as: “it’s good to have met you; I hope we can talk again soon.”

But you may have a chance to further the relationship, so the next stage should be to show how considerate you are. This is the time to move into “comfort” questions. Enquire if the other person had a good trip, has a comfortable hotel. Or it may be appropriate to offer some refreshment. Be observant and look for any signals that might help you. Does the person look hot, cold, tired, lost? Take up any cues they give to ask the right “comfort” questions.

Of course, you might be on the receiving end of such questions. If so, accept offers of help or refreshment gracefully. Even if you don’t really want more coffee or for somebody to carry your bag, accepting is more friendly than refusing. Of course some offers might be genuinely unacceptable and it is quite acceptable to refuse a cigarette or an alcoholic drink, but do so, perhaps by asking for an alternative: “I don’t smoke thanks, but I’d like a biscuit/ I would love a glass of water”.

By now you should have really broken the ice with your counterpart and you can take the conversation to a more personal level. You will have noticed that the conversation so far has been very general. Nobody wants to exchange personal details until they feel secure and confident with a new contact. But to form a relationship we really need to know more about people. Begin by asking about their work: how long they have been with their company; whether they like coming to meetings; what they hope to achieve on this occasion. Respond openly to similar questions from them. This is also a good moment to exchange business cards. If your companies have been in frequent contact, this might also be the chance to refer to possible mutual acquaintances. Knowing the same people can reduce the sense of being total strangers.

By now the atmosphere between you should be relaxed. You can cement the relationship by offering some personal information about yourself. Find a focus for this by looking for clues from the other person or your surroundings. If they look suntanned, fit and healthy, say that you hope to get a chance to play some golf or tennis, or do some jogging on this trip or at the weekend and then ask what sports the other person likes. If you spot a designer label on luggage or clothing, say that you hope to buy a gift for your husband/ wife/ partner, who likes the same designer or maybe has a preference for another. While you shouldn’t ask direct questions about the person’s family life, be prepared to show an interest if they volunteer information. Ask the ages of their children, for example.

Before you close the conversation make a mental note about some part of the conversation that you can refer back to the next time you meet. Even if you both know this is small talk, it is still a networking opportunity. When you meet again, your counterpart will feel flattered that you remembered something from this initial meeting.

You can end the conversation in the way suggested earlier but you could also try to notice something about the other person that might help you to plan the next meeting with them. If you are staying in the same hotel, you might say you hope to see them at breakfast. If you have a conference programme, you could point out which events you will be attending and say you hope to meet up at one of them.

Small talk do's and don'ts

• use the person’s name
• listen and make listening noises (I see; yes, of course; really)limit the amount you talk; take turns
• show that you are interested with positive body language (eye contact, smile)
• look for common ground as a platform for topics
• avoid controversial topics.

• ask personal questions
• ask yes/no questions
• look around at other people when you are in conversation with someone.

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