When Small Talk Becomes a Big Issue

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Rhonda Scharf lists her top tips for engaging in small talk

I recently had an opportunity to speak with “Ann” (not her real name) about her career. She has been an Executive Assistant for more than 25 years and for the past 20 has worked with her organization’s CEO. They have an excellent working relationship.

However, he is retiring—and Ann isn’t ready to retire yet. The new CEO is coming with her own EA, so Ann is expecting that she will have to find herself a new job. She wants to keep working for about another 10 years; she is worried she won’t be able to find a job or an executive who will want to hire her.

You may be wondering, as I was, why she is so worried, considering all her professional experience. Ann is very shy. She is from a small town, is introverted, and is easily intimidated by people that she perceives are “better” than she is.

When I spoke with her a bit more, I realized that what is making her nervous is her inability to chat casually with other people in professional and social situations. In other words, she can’t make small talk. Her uncomfortableness in social settings makes her nervous and undermines her self-esteem. That, I can help her with!

A very large percentage of the world suffers from social anxiety. Seventy-five per cent, to be exact, according to the New York Times. What people with social anxiety need to do, is push past it while they are in social situations—with a bit of advice and a few tips to help.

Here are the tips I shared with Ann:

1. The 80/20 rule applies

You speak 20 per cent of the time and the other person will speak 80 per cent of the time (if you handle your 20 per cent properly). Once Ann realized she didn’t have to carry the conversation, or even hold 50 per cent of it, she felt much better. If you follow that rule people will assume you are a fantastic conversationalist.

2. Ask questions

We all know that the weather and sports are the easiest conversation starters, so open the conversation with a question about either of those. What you are looking to do is find out what you have in common. Once you find some common interests that makes conversation easier.

If I’m sitting at a boardroom table with an executive I don’t know, and the silence is awkward, I take it upon myself to start the conversation. Often, I ask a funny question, or begin with a light yet relevant topic starter such as:

  • I see that everyone is a little late. Did you have any issues with the elevator (or traffic, or parking) coming here?
  • It looks like we get the first choice of the donuts. What’s your favorite?
  • I’m new to this team. Do you have any advice about how they work together, or suggestions for me about fitting in?”

When you ask questions, make sure you’re not grilling the person, i.e.:

  • Can I get you a coffee? Milk? Sugar? Black? Donut? Napkin? Anything else?
  • I don’t think we have met before. What is your name? Where you from? How long have you worked here?

It’s good to ask follow-up questions. The best way to do that is to listen to the person’s answer and then respond with a comment that builds on what they have just said:

Rhonda: I don’t think we’ve met before. My name is Rhonda Scharf and I’m the new EA to the CEO. You are?

Rose: My name is Rose Leblanc. I’m VP of Sales.

Rhonda: Nice to meet you, Rose. That’s a pretty name. How long have you worked here?

Often, the answers to your questions will lead you to the next topic, but there are times when you need to kick-start the conversation again:

Rhonda: I don’t think we’ve met before. My name is Rhonda Scharf and I’m the new EA to the CEO. You are?

Rose. My name is Rose Leblanc. I’m VP of Sales.

Rhonda: Nice to meet you, Rose. That’s a pretty name. How long have you worked here?

Rose: Three years.

Silence.

Rhonda: So, you and I are the newbies, then. Glad to meet a friendly face. Where did you work before you came here?

Or you could talk about sports, weather, the meeting, the building, traffic, or anything else until you speak to the next person, or a more solid topic appears.

3. Don’t steal, hijack, interrupt, or monopolize the conversation

When your conversation partner does say something interesting, don’t turn it around and make it about you. The goal is to have the other person do the talking, not you. You won’t be perceived as a great conversationalist if you dominate the conversation:

Rhonda: I don’t think we’ve met before. My name is Rhonda Scharf and I’m the new EA to the CEO. You are?

Rose. My name is Rose Leblanc. I’m VP of Sales.

Rhonda: Rose. What a pretty name. I love roses. Each year for our anniversary my husband gets me one more rose than the last year, counting the years we’ve been married. Our anniversary is August 25th and this year he will get me 23 beautiful red roses. We’ve been married for 23 years already. It seems like it was just yesterday, and I’d marry him all over again tomorrow if I could.

Don’t interrupt the other person in the middle of their story to interject your point. If your point is that important, there will be room for it later. If you forget it, then clearly it wasn’t that important, was it?

Remember, you only need to contribute 20 per cent of the conversation. Find a subject your conversational partner is interested in. If you are chatting with an executive, ask them how the department is faring, what is new, what are they doing better than any other department, etc. If you talk about what they know, they will easily take on their share of the conversation and the rest will be easy.

4. Don’t argue with or correct your conversation partner

Having social chit-chat is not the place to demonstrate how smart you are, or to “win.” You’re looking to develop a relationship, not win an intelligence battle:

Rhonda: I don’t think we’ve met before. My name is Rhonda Scharf and I’m the new EA to the CEO. You are?

Rose. My name is Rose Leblanc. I’m VP of Sales. We have met. Last year at the Sales Rally.

Rhonda: No, we haven’t. I would remember if we had met.

Or

Rhonda: I don’t think we’ve met before. My name is Rhonda Scharf and I’m the new EA to the CEO. You are?

Rose: My name is Rose Leblanc. I’m VP of Sales.

Rhonda: Right! You were the one who suggested we use this restaurant. I’m guessing the reason everyone is a little late is that you gave us the wrong address. You said it was at 12 Main Street when the address is 18 Main Street. I’m hoping everyone figures out the right address. Never mind, I’m sure it will be fine.

5. Don’t overstay your welcome

After you’ve had a conversation, move on to the next person. Mingle. Meet more than one person. Don’t be a hanger-on that your newfound friend can’t get rid of.

Once you have a few opening lines that work well, practice them on a few people, not just one.

If necessary, you can even take notes (surreptitiously, of course, away from the person) so the next time you meet, you can follow up on your conversation. This will certainly make the person feel important and special! And it will make you appear to be a great conversationalist – because you are one! My dentist used to do that. We’d chat while she was working on my teeth. The next year when I’d come back in she would say things like, “Last time you were here you were headed off to San Francisco for a business trip. How did you like San Francisco?” I felt like I was so important that she remembered our conversation. Logically I knew that she had taken notes and reviewed them before sitting down with me, but I still felt good.

Being from a small town, introverted, and easily intimidated were not reasons at all to think that Ann wouldn’t get another job. She was creating her own obstacles and convincing herself that her fear of conversation with strangers was going to cost her career.

Instead, a few simple lessons on how to have a conversation gave her the boost she needed, to know that when her boss does retire she can look for another job without fear.

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About Author

Rhonda Scharf

Rhonda Scharf, CSP, HoF, is a Certified Speaking Professional, Hall of Fame, trainer and author based in Ottawa. She helps organizations feel motivated and educated through her interactive, realistic and fun training programs and keynote speeches. If your team needs a boost by increasing their effectiveness and efficiency, then Rhonda will get you ON THE RIGHT TRACK. www.on-the-right-track.com or call +1 (1877) 213 8608. Rhonda will be speaking at Executive Secretary LIVE in Johannesburg, 28-29 February and London 27-28 March 2020. For further information and to book, visit www.executivesecretarylive.com

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