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Make Your Small Talk Meaningful

Two women making small talk at a store

By John Millen

"How are you?"

Have you ever walked into a retail store and been asked this question?

Actually, have you ever walked into a store, or your office, or somewhere on earth and NOT been asked some version of this question?

And I know the answer you gave when asked, "How are you?" You said, "fine."

It's the same answer you got when you asked your kids, "How was school?"

We treat these greetings as pure social etiquette. On either side of the greeting, we give the rote response that is expected.

Missing opportunities to connect

There's not necessarily anything wrong with this, except that we miss an opportunity to really connect and learn about people.

In business, sales, and life, we can establish a deeper connection with people by showing sincere interest and asking real questions.

Now I get it, you don't necessarily want to have long conversations with people every time you see them. And people asking how you are might not even want to know. Maybe they're just being polite.

Making small talk meaningful

My point is that what we think of as small talk, this meaningless exchange, has the potential to become so much more.

We went to the Container Store the other night and I was looking at the book written by its co-founder and retired CEO Kip Tindell, called Uncontainable: How Passion, Commitment, and Conscious Capitalism Build a Business Where Everyone Thrives.

Tindell writes how they specifically train their associates to steer clear of "How are you?" and "Can I help you?" to which the customer replies, "No thanks, just looking." He details the unique approaches they encourage for a real engagement at the moment, which he calls Man in the Desert Selling.

Tindell includes this story about Container Store co-founder and Chairman Emeritus Garrett Boone:

Garrett once delivered one of the greatest opening lines of all time. When he worked at the Storehouse furniture store in Dallas in the early '70s, he saw an attractive young woman walk into the store.

"Would you like to dance?" Garrett said.

"No thanks, I'm just looking."

The woman kept walking then stopped and turned around. "What did you say?"

"Would you like to dance?"

"Oh, no thanks," she said. "But I do need a new sofa and some chairs."

Garrett and the woman began talking, and he sold her a chair. But it turned out she had other needs as well, which he recognized because they were so similar to his own.

Fortunately, she paid with a check that had her phone number on it. A month later, he finally mustered the courage to call her, asked her out to dinner, and Garrett and Cecilia have been happily married for nearly forty years.

I can't promise you'll find love by asking the right questions, but you never know what may come from a meaningful exchange.

A simple positive question or comment from you can brighten someone's day.

Hotel and airline reps are used to people complaining. When checking into a hotel and I am asked "how are you today," I'll often answer, "this is the best day ever!"

The person's eyes open up and I see a big smile. It's like waking up your computer monitor by moving the mouse. Suddenly, they light up. The person is engaged and will ask, "Why, what happened?"

I will usually tell them something good that happened, or that my travel had been very smooth, or something positive about the hotel. We connect.

Now, I don't do it for this reason, but often after we have this connection the hotel clerk will keep smiling, start clicking on the keyboard and will say, "how about if I make your day even better with an upgrade to a suite?"

How about you?

Think about your own interactions with family, friends and work associates. Are you stuck in the same old rut? 

Shake it up this week by truly focusing on the people you meet and making real, sincere connections. Doing this can actually increasing your likability, as I wrote in 5 Keys to Make Yourself Super-Likable.

Try this:

1. Ask open-ended questions
2. Listen intently
3. Ask sincere follow-up questions

You never know where your conversation and your questions might lead.

Small talk may lead to big results.

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John Millen

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