Q. I'm starting to attend more meetings with clients, and am not a good conversationalist. I'm OK when the talk is about business, but am no good at small talk. How can I learn?
A. Get curious about the people you're meeting with.
The inner game
Find some lightness about this; it doesn't need to be a chore. Sit back, take some deep breaths, and recall past conversations where you really clicked with someone new. For now, don't analyze what worked or why, just enjoy the experience.
Now think about how you feel when you're in a less comfortable social setting. Can you feel tension in your body or your breathing? Practice letting that go, releasing any tight muscles as you exhale.
As you think about past interactions, what patterns do you notice? Perhaps you're more (or less) relaxed if you're meeting for a meal, or it may make a difference if you're with peers or people higher in their organization.
Now consider what others may notice about you so that you can get a broader view. Is your relaxed self calm? Funny? What does the body language for your more tense self look like? It may push people away unintentionally.
Look for role models. You probably know people who have the skill to chat with people the way you'd like to. Study their interactions and examine their approach. Movie or TV characters can also serve as great examples.
Finally, envision success, picturing the types of interactions you'd like to have.
The outer game
Start by thinking of a meeting that is coming up or use a recent experience to map out your approach. List the attendees and write down some things that you know about each. For example, Jenny has a boat, Tom has young kids, and Pat just moved here from a different state. You may find that you don't know a thing about some of them; don't be dismayed by that.
Now take one of the topics and brainstorm some questions: What kind of boat? How long have you had it? Where do you like to take it? Did you have one when you were a kid? Just imagine all the things you could learn and the connection you could make when you hit on a great topic. When you take this approach, you'll notice that the main burden of conversation switches from you to the other person.
Watch out for the "me too" trap. When someone says they like to garden, don't jump in talking about your beautiful yard, at least not right away. It seems like a good way to establish a connection, but actually could shut them down. Instead, use your knowledgeable questions to build rapport.
What if you have no starting point? Ask about their weekend, past or upcoming. Weather is a perennially good topic. Or just ask what they like to do outside of work and take it from there.
Check in with yourself from time to time to see how you're doing, celebrating successes and planning ongoing improvement.
The last word
Showing interest in others is the easiest and most effective way to make small talk count.
What challenges do you face at work? Send your questions to Liz Reyer, leadership coach and president of Reyer Coaching & Consulting in Eagan. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.