Getting Beyond Small Talk

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The work and the weather. If the communications at work center only on those areas, trust will be stunted, learning will be minimal and strong relationships will be few and far between. If you want to have meaningful conversations to promote stronger working relationships, build a culture of learning, and see trust skyrocket, you need to master some ideas that you might not of thought of.

The impetus for this post came from learning about Thomas Jefferson’s gatherings, now sometimes called Jeffersonian Dinners.  He would bring together 8-12 people, many of whom didn’t know each other. Selected for common interests and the willingness to converse and explore a topic the group gathered to eat and have such a conversation.  A topic or theme would be preset, and just two rules applied:

  • once guests were seated, there was to be only one conversation, with only one person talking at a time
  • the conversation must be allowed to flow with little guidance or pre-planning

Can you imagine the learning that could come from such a dinner?  Can you imagine the friendships that could be formed, and the mutual respect that likely grew?  Since making all the connections between this type of dinner and the business world would take a much longer article (just think about the lessons for meetings alone), I want to focus on the nature of conversation itself.

Even the most introverted or results-driven leaders know the value of having better relationships with their team members, yet they often don’t act to build those relationships.  And other leaders just don’t seem to know how to get past the basics of “the work and the weather.”

Enter Jefferson.

While I am not suggesting you have the type of dinner I have described with your team, I do think it gives clues to helping you create more meaningful conversations with team members (or others in your life).  Here are six ideas:

  • Think past a transaction. Too many work interactions end up being a transaction and little more.  If all you are after is an answer to a question there will be limited learning (only as it relates to the specific question), and little chance for trust or relationship to blossom in that moment.
  • Encourage personal stories. When you encourage people to share personal stories related to a topic, you engage their mind and their heart, and you show that you care about them beyond what they might expect.
  • Learn about matters of passion. Think about it: once you know what people care about, their hobbies and passions it is easier to get past small talk. Take the time to learn about their passions (the last item can help you), then show interest in these passions by asking questions and trying to learn more.
  • Value opinions and ideas. While there many ways to do this, a simple “What do you think?” or “how do you feel?” can start a conversation and help it go deeper. Asking these questions as a leader may be one of the easiest ways to instigate the building of trust.
  • Keep your focus on their message. Note the rule at Jefferson’s dinner for only one conversation at a time. While this rule serves other purposes, it reminds us that the more we can remain focused on what others are saying, the more likely we will understand the conversation, while showing they other person and their message matters.
  • Be present. I could have said listen, and I would have been right. If you don’t practice listening skills, the rest of these ideas won’t matter.1  But in the best case it goes beyond just listening.  Being fully present in the moment of conversation means you are listening, but beyond that it shows the other person that you are focused on them their message and by that attention you show them you care.

Doing these six things will help you move beyond small talk.  As I reflect on them I am confident you have done all of these in your life.  My questions are: are you doing them at work? and are you doing them frequently enough? My guess at these answers are the same – not often enough.

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