Making meaningful connections, instead of small talk

August 7, 2018

A few weeks ago, several Brilliant Inkies, myself included, attended ALI’s 5th Annual Strategic Internal Communications Conference in Boston. It was an excellent gathering of professionals representing a wide range of industries, organizations, geographies and backgrounds. (My colleague Becky, shared one of her personal highlights from Crayola, and Kate shared some of her all around favorite wicked smart takeaways.)

One of the best parts about going to these conferences is making connections with new people. But making meaningful connections when you meet dozens of people over a span of two days can be difficult and overwhelming. Thankfully, this year’s conference was chaired by a genuine and inspiring facilitator, Chad Littlefield. Chad’s self-proclaimed mission in life is to “eliminate small talk.” When he first shared this personal mission, I was a bit baffled, but once he explained, it immediately resonated with me. After all, nobody truly enjoys small talk. But, it’s natural when you’re meeting new people to kick things off with standard “small talk” questions - “Where are you from? Where do you work? Do you have kids?” and the like. But what Chad encourages is to take a social risk and ask questions that go deeper - because when you ask deeper, more meaningful questions, you’re much more likely to forge a deeper, more meaningful relationship. Sounds easy enough, but even for someone like me who is naturally outgoing, it really isn’t.

Here are some of my favorite bits of advice from Chad to help you get started with building more meaningful connections – at conferences, at work, at home, everywhere.

Follow your natural, genuine curiosity: Chad suggests that when you first meet a person, push yourself to look a bit deeper, rather than relying on the typical “small talk” questions. Slow down your natural desire to rush and really take in the person – his or her appearance, mood or personal effects. And then push yourself to ask a question that will dig deeper into who the person is.“You look so happy! What’s making you smile right now?” “That’s such a cool tattoo on your arm. What’s the story behind it?” “I love your necklace – where did you get it?”The key here is to ask questions about things you’re naturally curious about. With Chad’s encouragement (and some extra help with these awesome little cards), we tried it a few times at the conference, and while it did at times feel a bit uncomfortable, I’ll admit that I very quickly found commonalities and formed faster, more meaningful connections to the person I was speaking with.

Listen actively vs. trying to win: Another key part of building meaningful connections is to actively listen to what the other person is saying. That means listening to learn, not listening for cues to make your next point – a habit we often fall back on. In other words, when someone says “I’m from Asheville,” don’t immediately answer by saying, “My sister’s boyfriend is from Asheville!” It’s such a reflex action and maybe you have the best of intentions to use that point as a basis for a relationship. But by slowing down and really listening, you can much more quickly build a connection by asking questions like “How did you end up in Asheville?” or “What do you really love about Asheville?” It’s a subtle but powerful change and it really does work. Try it the next time you meet someone new!

Give yourself what you need: My favorite bit of advice from Chad is that when you’re pushing yourself to take social risks and build meaningful connections with others, you must also take what you need for yourself to recharge. All that connecting can be mentally exhausting! On breaks he’d often say “If you need a few minutes to reset and regroup, go up to your room or go for a walk outside.” So often, my instinct during a conference is to network, network, network. But there were definitely moments when I felt exhausted and needed some solitude to reset. Thankfully I followed Chad’s advice and spent one of the conference breaks alone in my hotel room quietly relaxing (I didn’t even check email!). I found that when I returned, I felt rejuvenated and ready to continue talking and connecting. If you think Chad’s on to something, you’re right. He’s worked with organizations large and small, helping leaders and employees build stronger relationships of trust and meaningful connection, which enhances team performance and success. Learn more about Chad’s philosophy on his company’s website, his videos or his books. Big shout out to ALI for an outstanding conference and an inspiring chairperson!

Ann Melinger

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