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Establishing a good relationship with your boss is critical for success. And, frankly, it’s sometimes hard to talk with these folks. If you have a distant relationship with him or her, you probably have no idea what to informally chit-chat about. You don’t want to cross any boundaries, but when your boss starts small talk with you it becomes even more important that you make a good impression.
Small talk is defined as light and easy conversation about common, everyday things. Hard to do if you have no clue what to say. Yet a hidden key to success is the ability to carry on small talk. Why? Because small talk establishes rapport. It builds trust and allows the other person to get a chance to know you without delving into anything personal. You simply cannot get ahead in your job if you cannot establish trust with your employers. It’s not going to happen.
Attorneys, in particular, must have an excellent grasp of expressing themselves because mostly that’s how they make a living. And, since raises and promotions are built on whether your firm likes and trusts you, it probably behooves you to do well in this arena. Conversations give a human dimension to the employee/employer relationship, so the ability to carry on small talk becomes a hidden tool for success.
Some people like to brag that they are not good at small talk because it indicates that they really have a loftier place in the scheme of things. I think it’s because they just don’t know what to say. Furthermore, you are taught growing up that it is not a good thing to talk with strangers. You are told over and over and over again, “Don’t talk to strangers.” However, at some point, you need to realize you are not still in the first grade.
I used to feel very uncomfortable doing the small talk thing until I realized that the other person was probably just as uncomfortable as I was. Early on in my career, I remember saying, “I don’t understand the point. Small talk is phony and boring.” But as my career progressed, I realized its role and importance.
I discovered that small talk is made up of ten usually safe topics: news, weather, movies, books, sports, health, economics, art, government, and in the legal field, the latest decision handed down by Judge SoandSo.
Conversation is how we strengthen the safety net of people who make up our personal and professional networks of sources and resources. Small talk is how we exchange information, preferences, ideas and opinions on issues. It’s how we break the ice and get a sense of who people are, what they like and what they are like. It doesn’t always have to be about “small” subjects. I’ve often seen people getting to know each other by having chit-chat that leads to very important topics.
Of course, things can go terribly wrong. Just the other day I was chit-chatting with a doctor, Dr. Stippel or Siefer or Serif — something like that, just “getting to know you” type thing. We were talking about knee surgery. (Well, that’s all the common ground I could find with this guy.) I thought everything was going just fine until Dr. Whatshisname decided to lecture me about inert objects. “Do you know what that word means?” he says. I was aghast. “Do you know what the word “rude” means?” I shot back. It was then I realized that the small talk portion of this program was about over.
Small talk is an art. Use it to appear well rounded. It’s a good idea to show your attorneys that you are aware of what’s going on in the world, read the paper, and see movies. The other day my husband wanted to know why I would waste my time reading People magazine. “Because I want my life to be more than laws, careers and training,” I said defensively. “OK, it’s true I don’t know who half the people are, but sure as shootin’ I’ll be able to carry my own in case any of those people come up in a conversation.”
Refine your conversation skills to a point where you feel comfortable talking with anyone. You can make small talk with your boss by mentioning whatever’s in the news lately. Or, you can ask your manager whether they have seen the latest 3D movie. Try to avoid political topics. If you know your boss is a devout Republican, it won’t work well to tell a George W. Bush joke, no matter how funny you think it is. You might want to ask your supervisor what she feels about a certain event but save that conversation for when you aren’t sipping wine coolers all afternoon at the firm retreat. Can’t think of a question? Try a sincere compliment. However, I emphasize sincere. People sense if you don’t really mean it and that becomes career suicide through kissing unmentionable body parts.
There are three simple rules to remember in small talk:
- Be humble in sharing your talents and weaknesses. Do not be afraid to show vulnerability in yourself but do not over-share. Be confident about yourself.
- Do not force the conversation, as it will make you appear desperate or trying too hard. Just be yourself and relax.
- Listen to what the other person is saying. People like to be listened to. It makes them feel good. And if you are trying to have small talk with any of your bosses, you definitely want them walking away from the conversation feeling good to have had that conversation with you.
Inert. I know that word.
Reprinted with permission from KNOW, The Magazine for Paralegals.