I think the most helpful piece of advice I’ve ever heard about communicating came from Gretchen Rubin (sadly I can’t find a direct link): If you’re talking and are interrupted by a child or loud noise or whatever and the other person doesn’t ask you a follow up question about what you were saying, drop the topic. I’ve tried to keep that in mind, and also I’ve tried to notice it with others–when someone is interrupted I now make a point to ask a follow up question about what they were saying.
Communication is filled with little things like that–small cues to keep in mind or ways to remember to show someone else that you’re interested in what he or she is saying. In The Fine Art of Small Talk, you’ll get tips for when and how to engage in small talk, but perhaps more helpful for most people are the interesting asides about how to leverage small talk in business situations, and how to handle it when you’re talking to someone who doesn’t know how to make small talk.
For example, the book has lots of helpful tips on how to structure questions to avoid getting one word replies. Sometimes it’s as simple as saying “Tell me about…[your weekend, your project, whatever]” rather than “How is…” I’ve been using that idea with good results so far–it’s amazing what changing the phrasing of a simple question can do.
While the book is a little light, it could be really helpful if you don’t know where to start with small talk, and would probably be at least moderately helpful for anyone. We can always get better at communication.
If you’re the sort of person who feels like small talk is a waste of time and superficial, consider that small talk paves the way for relationship building and for establishing a friendly tone before bringing up big topics. In a sense, you need small talk in order to make big talk. Heap big talk, I sound like Disney’s Peter Pan, good grief.
At any rate, once you’ve got small talk down, you almost certainly could use help navigating more touchy or in-depth topics. Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most is an exceptional resource from the Harvard Negotiation Project that covers common reasons why difficult conversations go awry, and how you can reframe your perspective and tactics to really understand the person you’re talking to in order to have a productive conversation.
The book is, happily, not a manual for how to manipulate or browbeat the other person into agreeing with you until you get your way. Rather, it presents a method for understanding a competing point of view, emphasizes respecting the other person, assists you in understanding your own weaknesses and hot buttons, and gives very helpful steps for changing your phrasing and your objectives to arrive at a better result.
I noticed these tips working almost immediately. In one particular conflict, I realized I was inwardly thinking in terms of “they always…” Instead, as the book suggests, I began to frame the problem around “I feel…” and asked myself what information the group had that I did not and tried to disentangle the impact of the action from the intent. Although I didn’t actually have a difficult conversation about the issue, just reframing the matter in my own head helped me tremendously.
One particularly helpful exercise in the book involves discerning patterns in when you tend to get knocked off balance and lose your cool in a situation. These, the authors say, are times when your identity is being challenged and reveal some of your fears. By identifying these things, you can more calmly talk to yourself about the situation, and not lash out.
I could go on and on about the myriad ideas and concrete action points contained in this book. Difficult Conversations is an excellently thought out, well written, eminently helpful reference and I highly recommend it.
What do you find tougher: small talk or difficult conversations?
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