Never Eat Alone: The Art of Small Talk

This is the ninth of sixteen parts of a “book club” reading and discussion of Keith Ferrazzi and Tahl Raz’s Never Eat Alone, where this book on building a lifelong community of colleagues, contacts, friends, and mentors is teased apart and looked at in detail. This entry covers the seventeenth and eighteenth chapters, “The Art of Small Talk” and “Health, Wealth, and Children,” which appear on pages 143 through 170.

neaI’m terrible at small talk.

Those little slivers of time right after you meet someone but before a real conversation starts is almost painful to me. I never know what to say and I usually just hope that it doesn’t last too long.

What I’ve come to do is to rely on a handful of standard icebreakers that tend to fill the gap quite well and often lead into some real conversation (which I actually enjoy). They’re just silly things – references to the top news story of the day, a comment on the weather, a compliment of the other person’s clothes or reading material, and so on. However, they get me over the “hump” of small talk nervousness and allow me to begin to get to know the other person.

Ferrazzi addresses the “small talk problem” in this section of the book. Let’s dig in.

On page 146, Ferrazzi outlines the principle of vulnerability:

Being up front with people confers respect: it pays them the compliment of candor. The issues we all care about most are the issues we all want to talk about most. Of course, this isn’t a call to be confrontational or disrespectful. It’s a call to be honest, open, and vulnerable enough to genuinely allow other people into your life so that they can be vulnerable in return.

How many negotiations would have ended better if both parties involved were simply honest and forthright about their needs? Even when there is disagreement, I’ve found people will respect you more for putting your cards on the table.

In other words, if you’re nervous before a meeting, commenting on that nervousness is a win-win. It not only provides a great conversational icebreaker, but it opens yourself up a bit to others. It’s likely a feeling that they’re having as well and hearing that you’re feeling the same way builds a bond between the two of you.

I often do this. If a situation makes me feel slightly uncomfortable, I’ll say so. If I’m nervous about making small talk, I’ll say that I’m nervous about making small talk. Quite often, the other person feels the same way and is relieved to find that you do, too. It immediately gives you something in common and, at the same time, lowers the threshold for what you have to say next, since the need to impress isn’t as strong as it once was. You already have a rapport.

There may be some situations – such as a negotiation that is going to result with a clear “winner” and a clear “loser” – where vulnerability might not help, but in virtually every other situation, vulnerability is a great way to build rapport with people.

Focus on One Person
Ferrazzi addresses the tendency some people have to constantly “scan the room,” a practice I find pretty weaselly. On page 151, Ferrazzi hammers it hard:

Whether you spend five seconds or five hours with a new contact or acquaintance, make the time count. In Los Angeles, where I live, eye darters are a party staple. They’re constantly looking to and fro in an attempt to ferret out the most important person in the room. Frankly, it’s a disgusting habit, and one that’s sure to put off those around you.

The surest way to become special in others’ eyes is to make them feel special. The correlate, of course, is equally true: Make people feel insignificant and your significance to them shall certainly diminish.

The only person worth paying attention to is the person in front of you. Everyone else can wait – they don’t matter yet.

The counter-argument many people offer against this method is that you might miss something important if you just focus on one person. To those people, I make the point that in your need to find out what’s “going on” around the room, you’re actively alienating the person in front of you.

If I begin a conversation with someone, I make an effort to focus on nothing but that conversation until there’s a lull in that conversation. If the lull happens and I’m not interested in continuing it, then I’ll excuse myself (sometimes after making plans to meet the person later). Otherwise, as far as I’m concerned, the other person (or small group of people) are the only one(s) in the room.

How to Listen
Ferrazzi also argues on behalf of the art of listening. On page 155:

As William James pointed out, “The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.”

You should be governed by the idea that one should seek first to understand, then to be understood. We’re often so worried about what we’re going to say next that we don’t hear what’s being said to us now.

[…] Take the initiative and be the first person to say hello. This demonstrates confidence and immediately shows your interest in the other person. When the conversation starts, don’t interrupt. Show empathy and understanding by nodding your head and involving your whole body in engaging the person you’re talking with. Ask questions that demonstrate (sincerely) you believe the other person’s opinion is particularly worth seeking out. Focus on their triumphs. Laugh at their jokes. And always, always remember the other person’s name.

This should come naturally if you’re focused solely on one person. If you’re focusing your attention on the person – and that person alone – then following their words and asking appropriate questions is the natural response to a conversation. Not doing so is a sign that you’re not paying attention.

I don’t really worry about doing such specific things as nodding and so forth. Instead, I just concentrate on the words they’re saying and my honest reaction to them. My physical reactions and follow-up questions simply fall into place behind them.

Having said that, I’m pretty poor at reading people. Quite often, my only indication that others are interested in hearing what I have to say is whether or not they have follow up questions or conversation.

If All Else Fails, Five Words that Never Do
If you’re stuck as to what to say next when making small talk, Ferrazzi has a simple suggestion on page 155:

“You’re wonderful. Tell me more.”

In other words, encourage the other person to talk more about themselves. Why? In the end, everyone enjoys talking about themselves to people who they believe are interested in them.

Thus, encourage people to follow up when they talk about themselves. Dig in for more details (without prying). Tell them you’re interested and listen to their story. Even if you’re not fully interested, attempt to grab onto the threads where you are interested.

This has a double advantage for me – it allows me to get comfortable with the other person without talking too much. I often get self-conscious when speaking.

What’s Your Motivation?
On page 161, Ferrazzi looks broadly at the motivations of others:

In my initial conversation with someone I’m just getting to know, whether it’s a new mentee or simply a new business contact, I try to find out what motivations drive that person. It often comes down to one of three things: making money, finding love, or changing the world. You laugh – most people do when confronted with the reality of their deepest desires.

Get comfortable with that reality.

If you think about your deepest motivations, they really do fall into those three categories that Keith outlines here.

Take me, for example. My biggest motivation is my family – a mix of finding love with a bit of changing the world (by raising my kids to do great things). If I walk through every person I know very well, their motivations usually fall along these lines. My friend who’s in a Christian band hopes to change the world. My career-obsessed friend is all about making the money. Some people have motivations that mix these areas.

It goes even further. What if you simply aren’t motivated by one of these areas? If that’s the case, it’s likely that you’re not in a situation where actually conversing with others and making new friends holds much value for you. Why? If you’re actually interested in building relationships, then your motivation is finding love – not in the romantic sense, necessarily, but in the sense of camaraderie and friendship.

How to Motivate
So, how do you utilize that understanding of people? On page 163:

The only way to get people to do anything is to recognize their importance and thereby make them feel important. Every person’s deepest lifelong desire is to be significant and to be recognized.

In other words, recognize that people are motivated by something very important to them, even if it’s not something you share with them, and realize that the person wants to be seen as being important and significant.

My desires to be a great parent and to be a great writer are central to me. They’re very important to me. Knowing that, it’s easy to connect with me – ask me about my family and chase it with some follow-up questions, or ask me how my novel is going. Follow up. Before you know it, I’m talking up a storm – and you’ll find many avenues to build the conversation from there.

The trick is figuring out what’s central to people, but once you find it, it’s the key to connecting to them.

On Saturday, we’ll tackle the nineteenth and twentieth chapters – “Social Arbitrage” and “Pinging – All the Time.”

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