Build relationships… win clients… find jobs

Small talk is widely considered a waste of time. Used properly, however, it can be a great way to find new business clients, network for a new job and/or form new friendships.

When we engage in chitchat, we send the message that we are open for communication… we build trust and rapport with strangers… and we identify areas of common interest, the building blocks for lasting relationships.

Here’s how to move from small talk to productive dialog in just minutes, using eight simple steps…

1. Establish eye contact, then raise a nonthreatening small-talk topic. The best topics usually are found in the immediate vicinity — where you are and what’s going on around you are two things that you are certain to have in common with people you meet.

Examples: If someone is walking a dog, ask about the dog’s breed. If you’re both in line at the bank, mention the length or speed of the line or the quality of the bank in general.

Warning: If your small-talk topic could be construed as a complaint — such as the slow speed of a bank line — phrase it in a lighthearted, joking manner. People are less likely to want to interact with you if you seem negative.

2. Target the person’s interests, and match his/her communications style. Your primary goal early in small talk is to make those you speak with feel comfortable. Does this person perk up when a particular topic comes up? Steer the dialog that way even if it’s not what you want to discuss. Is this person immediately open and warm or initially cool and reserved? Match his conversation style, body language and speaking tone.

Exception: Smile whether or not your conversation partner smiles back.

3. Listen for a key word (or phrase) that is in some way related to the topic that you would prefer to discuss with this person.

Example: If the person you’re chatting with is a potential employer and you need a job, listen for words such as employee, staff, hiring, manpower, associates, productivity or anything related to being busy or working long hours.

4. Refer back to this key word at the next natural break in the conversation. Subtly remind the person you are talking with that he/she said this word, then ask an open-ended question related to it that encourages the other person to speak. This creates the impression that your conversation partner raised the subject, not you — which makes it less likely that this person will resist the transition… or that he will become annoyed with you later if it becomes clear that you have a self-serving motive for discussing this subject.

Examples: Say, “You mentioned going in to the office this Sunday — is business that brisk?” if your goal is to steer the conversation toward giving you a job interview. Or, “You mentioned the cold weather. Is your house hard to heat?” if you run a furnace-cleaning business.

5. Determine what the person believes he needs related to your topic of interest. Once you’ve steered the chat to the topic you wish to discuss, ask probing, open-ended questions that get at what your conversation partner needs in this area.

Examples: If your goal is to land a job interview, try to get potential employers to discuss what their companies most need. If your goal is to convince a neighbor to take better care of his lawn, steer the conversation toward landscaping or home maintenance, then encourage the neighbor to talk about what he needs to better handle these chores.

Probing questions include, “What are your biggest challenges with that?”… “Why is that a problem?”… “In the best of all possible worlds, what would you like to have happen?”… “What do you see as your options?”… “How is your current approach working?”

At this stage, do not attempt to offer solutions to any challenges mentioned (unless you are invited to do so)… and do not criticize the person’s past or current strategies. Simply listen and think to yourself, How could I help this person solve this problem?

6. Link yourself to the person’s needs. Mention similar situations that you have been involved with in the past… or research that you have done in the area.

Resist the urge to bombard your listener with your experience or suggestions — this comes across as pushy. Just provide a thumbnail sketch of your relevant background, then wait for the person to ask for your assistance or advice.

Example: “That’s interesting. I’ve worked as a consultant for 20 years, and I see companies facing precisely that issue all the time.”

If the person does not ask for your advice or assistance, take it as a hint that he does not want to discuss the matter any further.

Backup plan: If you cannot serve as the solution to this person’s needs, think about who else you know who could help. Making a referral could establish you as someone who has this person’s interests in mind, strengthening the relationship.

7. Postpone further discussions if the person wants to get down to business right away and there are others present. Exchange business cards or phone numbers, and set an appointment to consider the matter in greater depth, ideally within a week. Declining to discuss serious matters in social settings prevents alienating others present… and reduces the impression that you were angling for this all along (even if you were).

8. Before parting, shift the conversation to something else that you have in common with this person. It’s okay if this is something minor that’s completely unrelated to the matter you have been discussing. People who have multiple areas of common interest are much more likely to see one another as potential friends and allies than those who have only one thing in common.

Example: “Is that Cadillac CTS yours? I drive a Cadillac myself.”