Small Talk and Innovation

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As an introvert, there is nothing worse than small talk with strangers.  In my 20’s,  I would consider myself a corner dweller at parties where I did not know anyone.  I would find the one person I knew, and we would somehow make our way to the corner where we did not have to interact with anyone.  I was uncomfortable with small talk with people I did not know.  

Why is small talk important?  Every conversation has two levels.  First, it communications information, insight, and ideas.  On the second level, it builds relationships.  Speech reassures, nurtures, encourages and builds trust.  It’s more than the words. It’s the body language, the tone, the eye contact, and the many other non-verbal cues that come with communication.

Small talk is critical at an organizational and individual level.  It builds rapport, creates trust, and helps build relationships.  All of these are essential for leaders to lead and coach their teams; for product managers to work with customers and engineers; for sales to build relationships with customers.  Working in product management for many years, I had to overcome this fear of small talk.  I needed to be able to establish rapport with engineers, leaders, and customers to come up with innovative product ideas that solved key customer business problems.

Here are some steps those of you who prefer the corner of the room who need to learn how to participate in small talk while at work.

  • Take a few deep breaths before you walk into a room full of strangers
  • Have a few go-to questions.  Plan these ahead of time.  Some of my go to questions include:
    • Where did you work before this job?
    • What do you enjoy about working here?
    • Tell me about how your role fits into the organization
  • Remember it’s not just about the words.  Ask a few questions, make eye contact, lean into the person you are talking too.
  • If you are struggling with small talk on a given day, just ask the other person about themselves.  Getting the other person talking about themselves is an effective way to engage in small talk.
  • Actively listen.  When the other person is talking, try to quiet the voice in your head.  Listen to what the other person is saying.   Nod and non-verbally communicate that you are listening.  
  • Don’t bring up items that could be landmines (e.g. politics, religion)
  • Take breaks.  With small talk, it can be exhausting.  Take a few breaks to emotionally re-fuel
  • Understand rationally how important small talk is to build relationships, trust and have fun at work
  • Own it. Talk to others about how you struggle with small talk.  In engineering environments, there are many who struggle with this.  By owning it and talking about it, you will be indirectly starting to form relationships and engaging in small talk.
  • Being uncomfortable is okay.  It will be uncomfortable for a while.  But eventually, you will get better, and it and it will become second nature.

The good news is once you learn how to engage in small talk, you will be more comfortable at work, networking events, and even at parties. You may gain some work related contacts, discover a