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April 16, 2018 Biz Books

How small talk can lead to better business outcomes

“The Serious Business of Small Talk — Becoming Fluent, Comfortable and Charming” by Carol A. Fleming (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, $16.95).

Small talk (n.) Ice-breaker conversations that connect people on a personal level. Common interests allow “I” to become “us.” Us creates relationships. In the workplace, us can always outproduce I. Example: You're at the negotiating table. You know nothing about those across the table. If you use small talk as a “social lubricant” to identify mutual interests, there's a greater likelihood the negotiations will go smoothly.

Given the benefits of small talk, why is it so difficult for many people to engage in it? From an early age, we're told, “Don't talk to strangers.” As adults, that social-anxiety phrase lingers in our subconscious when we are with strangers. There's no effort to make contact. When they approach, there's a reluctance to engage with them.

How do you break your own ice? Recognize that your stranger-danger has become a comfort-zone habit, which can be changed. The way to change it: See others as potential new relationships that can lead to new experiences and alliances. When meeting new people, think “Ah, there you are. I wonder what I may be able to learn about you and from you.”

Being curious shifts your mindset from potentially uncomfortable to being interested. Example: At a seminar on “green” issues, I opened 10 conversations with: “What environmental issues most interest you?” The opener showed I was interested in what they had to say. Lively conversations developed; others joined in. I became “we.” I stay in touch with four (i.e. the most interesting) of the 10.

Being curious also involves doing your homework. I read up on the “green” issues on the seminar's agenda. I knew enough to be interesting to those I engaged.

The bottom line: Everyone you meet presents a learning opportunity.

“The Essentials of Theory U — Core Principles and Applications” by C. Otto Scharmer (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, $21.95).

Theory U involves excavating the surface rather than scratching it to: 1. increase awareness of what lies beneath, and 2. reshape what's underneath to uncover opportunities. Analogy: Think of a large corn field. Over the growing season, the corn goes from seed to tall stalks with ears of corn. We don't see the farmer's homework and hard work that prepared the field to optimize yield.

What's underneath our outcome-producing actions? A social field whose production requires cultivating “relationships among individuals, groups and systems that give rise to patterns of thinking, conversing and organizing.” As we grow into adulthood, our base of experience, knowledge and contacts grows; we evolve and change the social field as we pursue careers, marry, have children, deal with life-altering events, embrace technology, etc.

Theory U identifies four social-field stages of awareness that modify individual and group approaches to cultivation: 1. “Habitual” — Bases the future upon the past. Action stems from self-imposed boundaries. 2. “Ego-system” — Examines what is in terms of what could be. External information expands boundaries. 3. “Empathetic-Relational” — The effect on stakeholders brings new relationships and perspectives into the evaluative process. Boundaries are pushed. 4. “Generative Eco-system” — Boundaries come down; alternatives abound. “A new space of co-creative awareness opens up” as input from others fuels process- and solution-development.

To optimize results, ensure you're not locked into Habitual; “cultivate your curiosity and pay attention to everything that deviates from your expectations.” Record observations for reference and use them as “jam session” talking points to develop conversations with stakeholders. As those conversations deepen, ideas collectively emerge.

Key Takeaway: To be effective in the workplace, Theory U requires that the heavy lifting in the social fields be done by those directly affected, not outsourced to consultants.

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