I had a new business appointment with a former client I hadn’t seen in more than 10 years. He said to take the elevator to his floor and call him when I got there. So I did, only he didn’t answer. I tried to follow the instructions at the lobby desk prompting me to dial different numbers for help getting in, but the system was down. Hmm. I had arrived early but was now concerned about running late When I peered through the door and saw my client walking down the hall. So I waved. He waved back and rushed my way to open the door.
“Hi, he said. It’s nice to see you”. “Same to you” I answered back. Then I gave him a hug and he hugged me back. Following him through the door and down the long hallway, we chatted a bit on the way to his office. Then we stopped. He looked at me. I took a closer look at him. Suddenly he said “how do I know you?” That was when I realized I didn’t know him at all. I had just hugged a total stranger who I thought I knew because he looked like a guy with hair I remembered from 10 years ago.
Sheepishly I said, “You’re not Mike Smith, are you?” “No,” he replied, “who is he?” Slightly embarrassed, I said he’s the corporate communications guy who is tall and thin like you. I thought you were him. He said when I waved him over and greeted him, he thought he was supposed to know me and didn’t want to tell me he had no idea who I was. We both chuckled and he escorted me back out of the offices and into the lobby.
Rather than stress over it, when my real client finally did appear, I told him what happened. He did more than chuckle. He laughed so loud that I started laughing and that laughter got our meeting off to a great start.
Yet laughing at your own blunder especially in front of a total stranger is a little like trying to make small talk with someone you don’t know very well. For many, getting started is the biggest struggle when trying to communicate. Even the most seasoned professionals will confidentially tell me they don’t like idle chit-chat and just want to get to the heart of the matter. Others say they have no time for ‘unimportant’ small talk. Perhaps they’re just scared. Or maybe they have no idea how to get a conversation going.
Small talk is actually quite important. Would a ball player play without warming up? Would you run a marathon without stretching in advance? Think about it. How comfortable would you make others feel if you stormed into a room and started talking about the meaning of life with people you’ve just met?
Small talk is the warm up that nurtures big talk. Not just for you, but for your listener. If you can share a laugh, find common ground, learn a little about the other person or even chat about the weather, not only will you put the other person at ease, but you will actually feel more comfortable when it comes time to approach the main subject.
A client of mine who is a hotel chain executive offered a great piece of advice when it comes to making small talk. He said think of yourself as a host or hostess and approach people as if they were guests you invited to your home. He says every time a guest walks into one of his properties, he puts out his hand, offers a big smile and says things like “May I take your coat,” “Can I get you something to drink?” or “How was your trip?” They almost always smile and return the conversation. Now, you’re off and running.
Not only have you successfully exchanged small talk, but sometimes without knowing it, you’ve helped put the other person at ease by guiding them into a conversation. Using the word H-E-L-P as an acronym, approach conversation starters as a four-step process.
H is for host as just described. This allows you to initiate and put others at ease.
E is for expand which allows you to take the conversation a little further. If you are the hotel executive, you might say let me show you around or perhaps you’ll ask them what they plan to do in town and if they need assistance.
L is for level of detail. Once you get a sense of their interest, you can continue to expand on the subject. If they tell you they hope to catch a concert, you might share information about securing tickets or even make a recommendation.
P is for personal and that means asking open-ended questions to facilitate a give and take conversation that draws out your listener. Use questions and phrases such as: tell me a little more, what did you think, what brings you to our city or in your experience?
Several years ago our youngest son had a role in a summer theater production when he forgot his lines. An offstage proctor shouted them out to him. Instead of panicking and making the audience uncomfortable at his discomfort, he stopped, smiled, looked at the audience and then pointing offstage quipped, “Whatever she said!” The crowd roared, but they were laughing with him, not at him.
Whether making small talk to approach bigger conversations or laughing at your own blunders, you may discover by taking the role of host and looking for ways to put others at ease, you can turn strangers into admirers.