There’s nothing small about small talk.
In western economies it has almost become a cultural norm to spend the first five or ten minutes of a formal meeting engaging with the other participants in what we call “small talk.” You know, those pre-call-to-order conversations that seem to just happen as people arrive in the meeting room – conversations that begin with questions and comments like:
- “How was your weekend?’
- “What are your kids up to?
- “Man, it’s way too hot this summer!” (or, “Can you believe how cold it was last night!”)
- “How about those 49ers! Is Kaepernick a world-class quarterback or what? [well, I can dream]
- “Congratulations! I just heard about your daughter’s gymnastics victory last night.”
- “Hey, I just heard that Freddie in marketing got a big promotion because of that killer ad campaign he designed.”
Most of us think of those topics as trivial, and primarily a way to kill time until everyone arrives and the “real” meeting starts. And yes, they do help occupy people’s minds until the host calls the meeting to order. But they can also make or break the “real meeting” that follows.
Sometimes the informal chatter that emerges out of “small talk” questions goes on for 15 or 20 minutes; it is fascinating how engaged people can become with “everyday” topics like the weather, their families, local sports teams, company gossip, and even politics (but only if the group generally leans towards the same end of the political spectrum!)
“Small talk” is actually a critical part of every meeting, and its quality and focus often has a significant impact on how productive the rest of the meeting is.
Small talk is a powerful way of connecting people to each other as human beings, not just as some person doing some job. It’s the way we learn about each others’ lives outside of work (and sometimes inside as well, when the small talk turns to office gossip, or to more legitimate news of company events, sales successes, and other important work-related activities).
Whenever I work with the managers of remote employees and telecommuters, I always encourage them to begin every conference call with a few moments of exactly this kind of small talk. It not only helps identify who is on the call, but it helps everyone (not just the manager or call host) get a sense of the participants’ current state of mind – and that’s useful knowledge as you begin to focus on the meeting topics and face difficult issues and decisions.
Small talk is really a big thing.
In fact, my good friend and colleague Patt Schwab, founder of FUNdamentally Speaking, believes that small talk does a whole lot more than just connect people with each other (as important as those connections are). Patt spent many years in academic environments, managing college student housing facilities and staff, and leading hundreds of meetings herself.
She also regularly addresses groups of middle managers and “ordinary” first-line workers on how to be more effective at work (those quotes are there because neither Patt nor I think of first-line workers as “ordinary”).
I recently asked Patt what she thinks makes a good conversation. Her first response was “respect for the other person.” She then went on to talk about how important it is for all the participants to be “in the moment.”
All that makes plenty of good sense, but Patt then really me think when she talked about the impact of intentionally opening meetings with several minutes of “small talk” – especially for “standing” meetings like weekly staff update sessions, where there is often very little energy, and usually no explicit agenda or particular issue that captivates the attendees or focuses their attention.
Staff members typically show up in the conference room for those weekly meetings with their heads full of concerns about all the unfinished work piled up on their desk, or with children who are sick at home, or struggling to pass geometry, or wrapped up in friendships that are deteriorating, or cutting classes.
In Patt’s view, the value of informal chatting and storytelling as people are arriving at those meetings is not just it that helps them connect to each others’ lives (which it clearly does) – but also that it brings them into the moment, perhaps distracting them from all those personal concerns and helping them be ready to focus on the task at hand, or at least on the other people in the room.
Because small talk is usually about familiar subjects, it usually shifts our focus from our own trials and tribulations to what’s on other peoples’ minds and what’s going on in their lives. And that refocusing of our attention gets us closer to being “in the moment” for the formal meeting; we have shifted from thinking about our own concerns to paying attention to what’s going on around us – a perfect mindset for the formal meeting that is about to begin.
I believe the most important factor that drives a conversation from good to great is that each participant genuinely wants to learn from the other person. And small talk is a way of opening us up to learning what’s going on in other people’s lives. So rather than seeing small talk as a waste of time, consider it as possibly the best and the easiest way to get everyone ready for the “real” meeting.