From Small Talk to Big Talk

During the season between Thanksgiving and Christmas I find myself spending most of my social time at holiday gatherings. These include office parties, networking functions as well as themed social events. What I like about this time of year and the holidays is that there is always something natural to talk about. Wayne recently stressed the importance of talking about things your conversational partner can relate to in his article about The Secret To Hooking People Into Your Conversations. At Charisma Arts we also stress taking conversations off the beaten path beyond the reams of small talk in order to access intimacy, creativity and genuineness in our interactions. How can you take a well-traveled road to a new destination? This is what we teach at conversation camps and practice during bootcamps. There are two primary ways to open the door to an extraordinary conversation about an ordinary subject. The first is to set an example which gives the other person the freedom to relate to the subject in a similar way. The second way to encourage novel interactions is to ask for them in a positive and straightforward way which does not put pressure on your conversational partner. I’ve included a few examples below.

I was at a professional networking event last week which was Christmas themed and I noticed a tree with decorative presents under it. Some young professionals I hadn’t met were standing next to it and I decided to approach them and introduce myself.

“Hi, I’m Ben.”

“Hi, Ben. I’m Cindy.”

“Cindy, I noticed you and your friends here next to the tree with all these gifts and I have to make a confession. I haven’t finished my Christmas shopping yet and I’m starting to feel really anxious about what to get everyone.”

Another of the attractive young women in the group responded “Haha, I can totally relate. I got all the easy presents done, but now I have, like, all the really special ones left to do which I have been procrastinating.”

I responded “Now I don’t feel so bad. We should exchange our lists and get over our procrastination. I’ll buy presents for your people and you buy presents for mine. My grandma loves chocolate, by the way, but don’t get her any toffee – she has false teeth. ”

What I did above was reveal casual vulnerability and put myself out there in the conversation in a personal, relatable way. This created a context where the people I was talking to could relate to me in the same way. I was now having a personal conversation. But I was looking for something more, something intimate.

A lot of people at this point might transition to a conversational subject like “So, what do you think I should buy so-and-so.” This is not bad, but it tends to lead to a third person, value oriented discussion about what is a “good” present and judgments / assessments about what kind of presents people should buy. I’m more interested in moving deeper rather than horizontally, so it was time to make an invitation.

“I really like talking to you.” I said.

“Thanks, my name is Becky, by the way.” She said, introducing herself.

“Nice to meet you Becky. Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?”

She paused for a moment, and then responded with an uncertain but friendly smile “Sure, go right ahead.”

“I think one reason gift giving stresses me out is that it makes me think about how well I really know a person, how close our relationship is and what sort of expectations and commitments we have. How do you decide what to buy people who matter the most to you?” I waited expectantly after asking. She nibbled her lip, touched my arm and responded.

“That’s a really good question. I used to spend way too much money on Christmas presents, but then I decided to start giving people something personal. I’m an artist, and I never thought people would value my work until I gave my nana a charcoal portrait of a picture I had of her and me when I was a baby…”

In a different place and with a different set of priorities this conversation could have gone in many different directions. In this case, I wasn’t pursuing a romantic intent for dating, pickup or intimacy. Rather, I was making personal connections. Personal connections are fundamental in creating a satisfying social, dating and professional life. After this conversation, this group was intently interested in what my business was and I had an opportunity to talk about my services. They had the idea that I should meet the owners of their firm. I set up a follow up with them later in the week. I know that they will convey a positive sense of my reputation when I eventually meet their bosses and coworkers. This would not have been possible had I started with a cold approach about who they work for, who I work for and what I want to see happen.

In my work with students I see people making things harder than they have to. You don’t need elaborate conversational subject matter to make connections in love, life and the daily grind. There are actually relatively few things which people talk about on a consistent basis. Here’s a brief hot list in no particular order:

* Seasonal issues and holidays * Sports and exercise * Movies, TV * Music * Relationships, dating, marriage and sex * Hobbies, past times and leisure * Travel and adventure * Food and cocktails, bars and restaurants * Family and children * Clothing and fashion * Spirituality * Local, regional and neighborhood interests * Books * College, school, education

Those who are looking to improve their conversational skills don’t need to prepare elaborate scripted discussions about these subjects. However, I do think it is useful to spend some time thinking about how you can relate to subjects like those listed above. Do you have any stories about your experience? Do you have any feelings about what experiences you HAVEN’T had with any of the above? I don’t watch sports, for example. But I can talk about it. I can talk about how I was never any good at sports as a kid and developed other interests. Now as an adult, I wish I were more athletic since I’ve been focusing on exercise and improving my health. I could also ask how a person I’m talking with came to enjoy XYZ activity and get at more personal subject matter such as their family and early life experiences. Here’s a Zen moment from Charisma Arts: The less you know about a subject, the more the other person has the freedom to contribute.

If you try on the perspective of looking at conversational subject matter as a vehicle for exchanging more meaningful experiences new opportunities will open up. Don’t fall for the allure of needing the perfect topic. I think of conversational topics like the celery on a hors d’oeuvres tray. It’s a necessary part of getting delicious dip into my tummy, but it is not the end-all, be-all of the appetizer world. Look for opportunities this holiday season to take topical conversation in new directions and see what happens. I predict your relationships - be they romantic, personal or professional - will be improved.