Small Talk: Building Rapport

A friend of mine whom I know is extremely busy called me recently and proceeded to ask me questions about myself that made it seem as though she had all the time in the world. Within a minute or two she got to the reason for her phone call but by that point I felt appreciated, understood and heard. It was wonderful.

Later I started thinking about this more in depth. Did I have this same ability to focus so completely on another person? I realized the answer to my question was both yes and no. I then remembered a discussion about "small talk" circling through the ADR and business blogs a few months back. There was this post on Settle It Now by Victoria Pynchon and this post by New York Center's Blog Spot responding to Victoria's post. I found this post on Mediator blah ... blah by Geoff Sharp talking about the necessity of mediator small talk with a reference to this post by David Maister regarding his own struggles to learn subjects about which to chat.

So I considered a few things:

Yes, I have the ability to focus on another person when ...
... I'm mediating
... A friend or family member is in need
... I'm at a professional event
... I find the person and/or the subject about which they are talking fascinating

No, I don't have this ability or I have it to a much lesser extent when ...
... I'm on the telephone
... I'm focused on completing a task within a specific time-frame
... I've had a bad day, am over-tired, am hungry
... When I find the person or subject about which they are speaking boring

Yet I've recently realized that, while it's definitely necessary and valuable for me to be successful at focusing intensely on individuals during mediation, it's no less important or even necessary for me to do this at nearly every moment in my life for the sake of my mediation practice. A potential referral -- a potential client -- is always around the next corner of every conversation.

David Maister raised the challenge of how one prepares oneself to engage in small talk for all occasions without appearing "fake" given that it's impossible to be interested in, and to know about, all subjects of conversation. Various people posted great responses ... learn about the subjects that interest you, ask the person questions about the subject they're discussing, etc.

There are two other methods that I've realized might be helpful: intense bursts of time, and what I'll call "you questions." I know I get overwhelmed with the thought of long telephone conversations that might keep me from accomplishing other tasks. Therefore, I tend to ask people directly and virtually immediately for what it is I need. While this may get me my answer quickly, I fail to accomplish what my friend was able to do so well in the brief minute or two she spent intensely focused on me. I miss the opportunity to make the other person feel appreciated, understood and heard. In other words, I miss the opportunity to allow them to feel a connection with me. Such a powerful connection has more to do with presence-emotional, spiritual, physical-than the length of time talking. With the current fast-pace of our lives, its absolutely wonderful to feel someone being truly present even if it's just for a minute or two.

I would also add to David Maister's musings by suggesting that people really want to talk about their lives, first and foremost, over any other subject such as sports or books or movies. I'm of the opinion that we turn to those things because they feel safe. That's not to say we can't genuinely connect about such subjects, or that they don't make great avoidance tools, but I would go so far as to say that connecting on those things allows us to feel safer connecting on deeper things. Asking people "you questions" about their health, their families, their passions etc. creates a connection more quickly, perhaps even more honestly.

Some may argue that such dialogue isn't appropriate for a cocktail party or a professional event or with the person who answers the phone at an agency you're calling or when you bump into an acquaintance on the street, yet aren't those the conversations we're most likely to remember in a day, a week, a month ... even a year? What conversation is the other person likely to remember? The one where they commiserated over the loss of the local team's football game? The discussion about the most recent movie starring Leonard DiCaprio? Or the story they told about their five year-old son sticking up for his little sister on the playground? Their mother falling in love with a slightly older gentleman at the nursing home where she lives? Their teenager sneaking out at night to visit his girlfriend?

I'm still trying to figure this all out. One thing I do know: I can certainly take a minute or two to inquire into the lives of the people with whom I interact. I'm a mediator. I'm empathetic by nature. It shouldn't be that difficult. Right?

By Laura L. Noah
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