Boss Lady

How to overcome your fear of business meeting ‘small talk’


Operating successfully in business requires a combination of sharp natural instincts, a thorough education, and a constant attendance to developing trends. It’s not a rigid science: that’s why the best business people work hard to make up for shortcomings in their instincts by learning and practicing the traits and skills that they need.

But there’s one area that many of us struggle with – maybe 50% or more, depending which metric you use – and for which you won’t find a dedicated 101 module on any MBA: small talk. Where’s the evening class for that?

Well, of course enough people are terrified of making small talk that it is possible to pay up for an online course in the skill if you’re desperate. But the truth is, small talk is not that complicated. And all your interlocutor actually expects of you is to be engaged: you don’t have to sparkle and represent yourself as the most fascinating conversationalist currently active – just to show that you care. That’s because small talk is first and foremost about bonding, and not an exchange of information.

Use your ears

This emphasis on bonding means that the most important thing you can do during small talk is to listen closely. That way you can demonstrate that you care about what the other person is saying, find cues on what to contribute, or even wing it by mostly repeating back what you hear (“It took me two hours to get through the snow!” – “Two hours?!”) – which will also help you remember details for later.

But statistically it’s pretty likely that you’ll find yourself up against somebody who struggles just as much you do. Unfortunately, when you sense that this is the case, calmly suggesting to ‘skip the small talk’ is not an option as it may come off rude (and jeopardize the bonding experience).

In this case, you can quickly identify a suitable topic (and avoid risky ones) by remembering the acronym F.O.R.D: Family, Occupation, Recreation, Dreams. Not all will be fully appropriate in the work place, so as far as ‘Family’ is concerned you can keep it to ‘business family’ rather than real-life family: mention a colleague you have in common or comment on visual details about the premises where the meeting is taking place.

Keep the questions open (no yes-or-no questions) to avoid monosyllabic replies that give you nothing to work with. And listen carefully to the response rather than retreating into your mind to cook up the next question.

Use your eyes

Unless you happen to hit gold, the content of your small talk is unlikely to be of lasting importance. To emphasize the point again: this is a bonding experience. You’re both figuring out (on a subconscious level) whether to let your guard down, and finding some common ground from which to continue your interaction.

This means that you don’t just demonstrate your engagement through your words, but through the subtle clues of your body language. If you look at your feet or over your interlocutor’s shoulder, you’ll offer different but equally unflattering clues about where your mind is at (afraid/closed off; bored/impatient) while you ‘listen.’ Either gaze can even make you seem untrustworthy.

Making eye contact is pretty terrifying for a lot of people. But what are we afraid of? Giving too much away? Being judged? Getting locked into an empathy exchange we can’t get out of? Sending signals that we don’t intend?

Eye contact can be draining, but it is usually rewarding once you commit. You learn about the other person from the subliminal signals that their tiny eye movements transmit; they learn to see you as a fellow human, and not just an agent with whom they must negotiate over the course of the meeting.

If you’re authentic in your gaze (you don’t overcompensate or worry too much about being judged) then there’s no reason to fear eye contact. The most difficult thing is to jump in. So instead of rationalizing your need to raise your eyes, make it a physical challenge: simply draw an imaginary triangle between the other person’s eyes and nose, and force yourself to stay focused on switching your gaze between these three points. (This is particularly useful if you are worried about being misinterpreted – keeping your gaze moving makes it ‘engaged’ without becoming intense).

A guide to making small talk 

If you have a meeting coming up and you’re worried about those first undefined moments before it gets going, try working through this visual guide to small talk in advance. It breaks the method down into easy, memorable techniques to get you out of any corner in which you fear becoming trapped.

How to overcome your fear of business meeting 'small talk'

About John Cole

John writes on behalf of NeoMam Studios. A digital nomad specializing in leadership, digital media, and personal growth topics, his passions include world cinema and biscuits. A native Englishman, he is always on the move, but can most commonly be spotted in the UK, Norway, and the Balkans.

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