How to Get Bigger Results from Small Talk

The truth is I HATE small, small talk. But you can’t get to big talk with strangers without some form of this connection cocktail.

Strangers don’t grow into acquaintances, acquaintances don’t grow into connections, connections don’t grow into friends–without a bit of early light banter. I’m not advocating for talk that remains small. Nothing makes me more crazy than when a relationship gets stuck in the “talk about the weather” phase. Consider small talk as a light knock on the door of bigger possibilities.

Why Small Talk Stays Small

Urban Dictionary shares the following definitions of “small talk.”

“Useless and unnecessary conversation attempted to fill the silence in an awkward situation. Commonly backfires into feelings of loneliness and social discomfort.”

“When you come across that person you haven’t seen in a while, but you really have no close connection with them anyways. But you know… you don’t want to be rude and just walk right past them… so then it turns to a complete BSing session between you and this acquaintance.”

“The act of supplying a person with irrelevant information about oneself in an attempt to appear friendly and normal to a person one is meeting for the first time. This practice is particularly important to extroverts (people who take pleasure in spewing random bits of their life stories at anybody who will listen…)”

A Bigger Approach to Small Talk

In their book We Dare You: How Handshakes Can Change the World, Mattson, Williams, and Orendi share three practical categories for starting more meaningful conversations.

Conversation Starters

  • How’s your day been so far?
  • Do you understand this stuff?
  • What’s the deal with that?
  • Would it be okay if I complimented you on something?
  • Could I get your opinion?

Fun Zone Questions

  • What celebrity do you most want to punch in the face?
  • What did you get in trouble for when you were a kid?
  • What was your favorite musical group when you were in middle school?
  • What was your worst date like? (oh boy, do I have a fun answer for this one 😉
  • What was your first job? Worst job?

Deep Zone Questions (to be used a bit further down the connection line)

Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, What, you too? I thought I was the only one.” -C.S. Lewis

  • What is the most vivid memory from your childhood?
  • If you had to verbalize a slogan for your life what would that be?
  • What is your crowning achievement at this point in your life?
  • What’s the nicest thing someone ever said to you?
  • What are you really about?

When we take a bigger approach to small talk, we open important pathways to future connection. I challenge you to go bigger with your small talk this week, and let us know how it goes.

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Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt, is CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders and a former Verizon Wireless executive. Karin was named on Inc.’s list of 100 Great Leadership Speakers for Your Next Conference, the American Management Association List of 50 Leaders to Watch, and as a Trust Across America Top Thought Leader in Trust. She’s the award-winning author of two books, Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results— Without Losing Your Soul, and Overcoming an Imperfect Boss. She’s regularly featured in business publications including Fast Company, Entrepreneur, and Inc.

16 Comments

    • Andre, Great to have you join the conversation. I hope you will stop back again.

  1. I’ve always liked small talk. Meaning, hearing someone tell me what’s going on in their life. I learn so much about them from listening to their story.

    My listening skills brought me to the world of coaching.

    p.s. Got my Open Water Diving Certification! Woo hooo!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Steve, Exciting to hear about your certification. My son is working on getting his master diver certification in Hondoras this summer. I see a lot of diving in our future as well.

  2. I enjoyed this posting; it’s a particularly great read for a Monday morning. PS Congrats to Steve on his certification.

  3. The greatest benefit of small talk which leads to deeper talk is trust. When we know more about another person we feel more connected and more willing to open up and even give more of ourselves.

    Patrick Lencioni talks about developing trust in his book, The Five Dysfunctions of A Team and he uses an exercise to develop trust which involves conversations. He suggests we ask our teammates about their childhood and most difficult challenges. When we dig deeper we actually form more trusting and meaningful relationships.

    Thanks Karin!

    • Terri, Excellent point. So agree… getting to know people sets an important foundation for trust.

  4. Oh, this is good!

    “What was your first job?”
    -Page (i.e. filer of books) at the Mississauga Public Library

    “What’s the nicest thing someone ever said to you?”
    –> “You’re a lot like George Washington…” – my wife said this to me last month as she read “Washington: A Life” by Ron Chernow

    “What’s the nicest thing someone ever said to you?”
    –> “You’re a one man Associated Press!” (said of me during my university years when I was writing articles for five different newspapers..)

    • Bruce,
      Nice… My first job was a lifeguard and swim team coach. Those were the days 😉

      George Washington, wow… that’s a good one.

  5. Hi Karin,

    Just sharing my thoughts. I think small talks are good. Creating relationship, understanding the requirements etc.

    Towards employees, it would be great to know what theya are thinking. Towards customers, it is excellent to understand what they really want!

    Small talks? Yup! Totally agreed 🙂

    • Reginald thanks for extending the conversation. I so agree with you… it’s a way to go deeper.

  6. I’m like you, Karin—I just hate small talk!

    Networking at social events is really hard work for me, and I’m a bit of an extrovert. I find meaningless chatter a real chore and very draining….

    But, as you say, small things lead to bigger ones. Small talk is an important way to move into deeper relationships. Often, I find the most productive conversations revolve around issues not related to work, such as hobbies, travel, or philanthropies. At least those conversations are honest and not a dry rehearsal for the next person you meet!

    Great topic and post 🙂

    • Thanks LaRae. It was funny, I wrote this post and then headed to our church picnic where there was a lot of small talk to be had. It’s interesting when you’re really concentrating on working at better small talk. I did take a nap after 😉

  7. Karin,

    Some great pointers on making small talk work. For me, small talk is like pulling on a thread. Once pulled, following through with more questions begin to unravel a person’s story. Understanding someone’s story enables us to enhance our empathy in how we lead.

    Thanks!

    Jon

  8. The fun zone questions are hysterical! I don’t know how I’d react if someone on the acquaintance side of the friendship scale asked me, but I can remember a ton of networking events that I wish were that interesting! The weather will only get you so far. Even worse, it’s a pet peeve of mine when people go through the small talk motions “How are you?” but don’t stop and pause long enough to show that they even remotely care about the answer.

    Thanks for sharing! I may have to pull one or two of those out in the near future!

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