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Published:February 12th, 2008 09:29 EST
Get Ready for Productive Small Talk

Get Ready for Productive Small Talk

By Terry Sumerlin (Mentor/Columnist)

At a dinner program on dining etiquette, the presenter pointed out that career wise such matters are becoming more and more important. With increasing frequency, job interviews are taking place over formal lunches and dinners. Many corporations want to know before hiring someone how she might represent them in business settings.

In addition to what our speaker said regarding dining dos and don’ts, I was intrigued by another comment: That small talk is a valuable part of the fine dining experience. That said, she then gave us time to chat with our table partners.

As I turned to the very nice lady seated next to me, she commented that small talk is not one of her favorite things. I commented that I felt the same way until I read that we generally don’t get to big talk without going through small talk. It changed my point of view.

For many years small talk has been a large part of my day. No place is there more of it than in a barbershop. Yet, some of what takes place in a barbershop and elsewhere is more in the realm of useless talk than it is small talk. What’s the difference? you might ask.

The difference it seems is that, while all useless conversation is small talk, not all small talk is useless. Also, useless talk sometimes serves as polite conversation. On the other hand, at its best small talk has a purpose, a sense of direction and is planned. To say the least forethought is involved. With it we’re getting acquainted, seeking information, establishing a common bond and positioning ourselves for bigger talk.

In view of such, with effective small talk we ask meaningful questions. Questions that produce answers that we care about. To ask questions to get answers we don’t care about is insincere and a waste of time.

For instance, I might casually comment that it’s a beautiful day or that we’re getting some badly needed rain However, I don’t normally talk about the weather or ask questions about it. First of all, we can’t do anything to change the weather. Secondly, I don’t have a burning interest in any answers I might get to questions about the weather. So, why ask?

With effective small talk, though, we not only care about the answers. We ask good questions. We don’t ask the same questions every time we see the same person. Nor do we come across as conducting an interrogation. We’re simply engaging the other person in conversation, with a view to connecting and really getting to know him.

Following are questions (in the form of open-ended statements) that seem to work well in this regard:

Tell me about your family. Most have a family, right? Yet, we don’t want to ask if a person is married. That might make for an awkward response. “Family” gives the respondent lots of options.

Tell me about where you went to school. Because some did not go to college, “school” is a better term.

Tell me how you spend your time. In today’s society, “Where do you work?” might create the embarrassing answer of “I’m unemployed.” Or, it might say that we’re unaware there are those who are independently wealthy and don’t have to work.

Tell me about your recent travels. This often produces stimulating conversation.

With all of these “questions,” and more – listen. Ask follow up questions such as when, where, how and why. Also, a connection can often be made with, “Do you know Ms. _______?”

The main thing to remember with small talk is think – in advance if possible. Plan to be engaging. The benefits can be delightful and far-reaching.

BARBER-OSOPHY: To get to the big talk, learn the skill of effective small talk.

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