Small talk are those random conversations that we have with people. Most of us are missing out on these chats because our lives are so regimented. Many people have closed themselves off to these random conversations. They feel exposed, vulnerable, that they must have something to say that impresses people. It isn’t that way. People aren’t interested in whether you can impress them. They just want to be treated with respect and dignity.
I’ve learned to have small talk with whomever I meet. It is a process of discovery about the world. Much of this has come through my travels. In the past two years, I have traveled across the United States visiting or passing through 28 states and the District of Columbia. Over the past five years, I have visited or traveled through nine European countries, as well as China and South Korea. I soon leave for Thailand to attend an international conference. This gathering will bring people from over 65 countries together to discuss care for the most vulnerable people in the world, orphaned children.
The Small Talk Experience
My life has been full of random conversations. I am extraordinarily curious about people who are not like me. You can discover the meanings of life by simply talking to people. If you avoid always talking about yourself, people will tell you just about anything.
Quite often, I have conversations with strangers. The other night I had small talk with a couple from Holland. Note that they said Holland, not The Netherlands. There is a distinction there, which is important to them. Last night I met a young Latino fellow downtown. He’s a photographer. When I asked him what distinguishes him from the hundred or so other professional photographers in Jackson, he said, “I try to put people into a more abstract but real context.” Interesting. I’m curious about what he means.
I seek people out for small talk. I usually sit at the bar in my favorite restaurant here. There is something very egalitarian about sitting side by side with a stranger, and you are both eating meatballs. Some of my favorite people I met sitting by them having small talk.
I want you to know that the door for conversation is always open. It is better to walk through it and find out what’s in the other room. When I go to a social event, I look for people who are standing apart, alone, and I go start a conversation.
These small talks have no age limitations. At two of my book events this summer, my conversations were with a six-year-old girl and an eight-year-old boy. We talked about how they are making a difference in the world. At a Colorado Rockies baseball game, I sat next to an 8th-grade girl. She started our conversation. She wanted to know which Rockies player was my favorite. I didn’t have one. She thinks Nolan Arenado is cute. We asked each other questions, and had a fun time through the whole game.
Some of my best small talks have taken place on airplanes. On one trip, it was a military test pilot. On another, she was a designer of the customer information retrieval system for a large call center. This summer, I drove a hundred miles out of my way to have dinner with an architect from Birmingham that I had met on a flight the week before. We talked about what’s happening in communities. Her perspective gave me insight into how school boards and city councils think about new buildings.
Why Small Talks?
These chats are not like online ones. The world of the screen is a spectacle of connection. It isn’t like having a direct conversation with someone. When I talk with people, I learn about who they are. They usually say something that creates the opportunity to go deeper. They learn about me. When they find out that I’m an author, they often take out their phone and order my book while we are still talking. At that point, I feel we could be friends for life.
People tell me things that they would never say online. Social media is the wrong place. I call these conversations small talk because they are not intended to solve a problem or sell a product. It is just two or three people having a chat. Do it right, and maybe you will have a new friend for life.
Leadership Small Talks
There is an intentionality about these small talks that can have a very strategic purpose in an organization. I’ve spent a lot of my life walking into places where I don’t belong. In many respects, this is what consultants do. We are like intimate outsiders. When I go into businesses, I talk with every person that I can. Just last week, I had a small talk with a young woman holding the door open for me when I entered her retail store. She told me about why she loves her job.
If you are an organizational leader, I highly recommend that you begin to have small talks with the people who work for you. Break your pattern of moving through your building. Try to have one small talk every day. Whether at work or at the market.
A dozen years ago, I had a client who would take breakfast to the laborers before they got in their trucks to go serve the people of their city. He’d show up in a T-shirt and jeans, and they would talk. Just small talk. Sports, kids, retirement plans and their experience at the company. Just random stuff. But it was those small talks where they came to trust him.
Having small talks with people in your organization is a leadership strategy that will help you discover the persistent, residual culture of the company. Recently, I toured the corporate offices in a division of a large company. I was able to chat with one of the executive assistants. Our little five-minute talk helped me see more clearly the persistent, residual culture of her company. A persistent, residual culture is a culture of values that persists in spite of the organization’s leadership or challenging times. It does so because it resides in the relationships of the people of the company.
The impact of having random small talks with people, especially your employees is that you may discover what a persistent, residual culture looks like. It is the hidden strength of an organization
Five Principles of Small Talks
I’d like to leave you with five principles that are worth remembering to guide your small talks.
- Keep it random, personal.
- Be curious, but not nosey.
- Listen and respond with respect.
- Thank them for the conversation.
- Never make it about you.