I worked recently with 21 management consultants, as part of the induction programme to their new firm. In preparation for the session, I asked these high powered, confident, capable people where their weaknesses lay, in communication terms. Interestingly, the area which came up repeatedly was small talk.
That’s consistent with my experience of other sectors and other individuals (particularly lawyers). Very many people fear these ‘off agenda’ moments. Why?
For one accountant client it was about loss of control – she didn’t know where the conversation might go, and so tended to shut it down when she started to feel uncomfortable. For others, it’s anxiety around having nothing interesting to say. And a proportion of people feel that time spent not talking about work is time wasted.
As did Sheryl Sandberg, early on in her Google career, as she explains in Lean In. She had a weekly one-to-one meeting with her boss, Omid Kordestani. “I would enter his office with a typed agenda and get right to it. I thought I was being so efficient.” Word came to her from a colleague (who clearly had heard this from Omid himself) that she should take a moment to connect with Omid before diving in. She made the adjustment, and learned a good lesson.
These ‘off agenda’ informal chats can be especially useful for people who struggle to speak up in meetings dominated by forceful and vocal individuals. Working with a partner in a law firm this week, we agreed that the first step towards making a greater contribution to group conversations was to chat with people before or after the meeting – about work related or non work related issues. To facilitate this he’s going to have to avoid running in at the last minute (which means that the first words he speaks are an apology) and leaving immediately (as is his current habit). He’s thereby going to get his ‘voice in the room’, in a safe and non-threatening manner, build his visibility within the firm and grow enough confidence to be able to eventually address the whole gathering.
Simon Sinek in his recent thought-provoking interview about Millennials – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hER0Qp6QJNU – refers to those moments just before a meeting when people have a chance to connect with each other. Whether you’re asking about a parent’s health or discussing last night’s disallowed goal, these encounters serve to forge and cement relationships. And let’s never forget that career success is built as much on strong relationships as the quality of your CV.
This, of course, is where technology is unhelpful. If we’re hunched over our screens, we’re missing these human being to human being encounters. Is that perhaps why so many young professionals fear/dislike small talk – because they haven’t had enough practice in their formative adult life?
The recipe for feeling more comfortable is actually very simple – only three ingredients: ask questions, listen and be ‘present’ in that moment, with that person. And, just like the Federer serve, the more you practise, the better you’ll become, and the more confident you’ll feel.
So, whether you’re currently serving like Roger or poor old Novak, be careful not to ignore those pre and post agenda moments – they’re key in building relationships, enhancing your visibility and learning about the offside rule.