Wednesday, October 5, 2016

An Introvert's Trick for Making Small Talk

A simple technique for practicing self-disclosure at work

 As an introvert, I'm not predisposed to making small talk. There are a finite number of words to express or interactions to have in a given day before I need recovery time. Perhaps that's why for so many years I'd answer "How are you?" with "busy." It doesn't exactly invite follow up discussion and I don't have to share anything about myself. 

But (appropriate) self-disclosure is a key professional competency for everyone to develop, especially those in leadership. There are numerous articles about its importance in the workplace; it's an integral part of interpersonal communication and helps to build trust. 

I decided I would casually wade into the self-disclosure waters within a ubiquitous exchange that I hated having. For me, worse than having to engage in small talk is having to engage in meaningless small talk. This kind:
Hi. How are you?
Fine. How are you?
Things are okay. Have a good day.
You, too.
Ugh. What a waste of time and words. But what a perfect opportunity to self-disclose in a way that wasn't too scary. 

Here's what I do - offer one tidbit of personal/professional information when responding to the "how are you" question. Like this:
  • Good - my commute was 15 minutes faster today so I've been given the gift of time.
  • A little tired - I stayed up past my bedtime binge watching [show] on Netflix.
  • Can't complain - yesterday I had a chance to re-pot some houseplants, which has been on my to do list for longer than I'd care to admit.
  • Fine - I'm trying out a new email productivity system and don't quite have the hang of it yet.
After giving my response I'd of course reciprocate with "and how are you?".  At that point the person might choose to continue the conversation and add a comment related to what I shared or they may simply respond to the question and go on with their day. More often than not though, people pick up the conversation ball. 

Innately, we wish to relate to others and by sharing an authentic tidbit about our lives we make it easier for the other person to know how to relate to us.

You don't need to be overly personal in what you share. In each of the examples above, I'm revealing a benign but true piece of information about myself and providing an easy doorway for the other person to walk through into a conversation.
  • Information shared: I commute, today it was faster. The other person could ask from where and talk about their commute. They could comment on the "gift of time". 
  • Information shared: I have Netflix, I like [show]. The other person could share whether or not they have Netflix, what their TV watching medium is (e.g., we have Amazon Prime Video, or we don't watch TV), or comment on whether or not they've seen the show I mentioned.
  • Information Shared: I have plants, I sometimes let household to dos linger on my list too long. The other person may comment about their own plants or lack of a green thumb. They may comment on their own unfinished home to do list or a project they recently completed.
  • Information Shared: I'm interested in personal productivity but I'm not perfect at it. The other person could share something they are trying or that they too wish they had a better system for managing email.
When I started implementing this technique, I noticed several things:
  1. Since the conversation was intentional from my perspective, I felt more in control and proactive as opposed to annoyed. 
  2. It made other instances of small talk easier for me. 
  3. It can be used as an informal search mechanism to find colleagues who had similar interests, whether personal or professional. 
  4. It can be used to subtly but strategically position oneself as the go-to person to talk about [topic X]. 
  5. It seemed to make it easier for junior staff to approach me. They could start a conversation using any of the information I'd previously revealed ("Hi, Katie - how are your plants doing these days?") and then segue into the work matter they wanted to talk about "I'd like to ask you some questions about project X". 
  6. I noticed just how many people were on autopilot having the same meaningless conversation each day.   
There's of course lots more that goes into skilled self-disclosure but you'll be surprised at how much you can get out of starting with this simple technique. YMMV.