This week I spent an evening the company of David Gurteen, who is the wonderful human being behind the “Knowledge Café” series. This particular evening we were at the NHS London Leadership Academy. The conversation was, as usual, wide-ranging and challenging, particularly looking at how leaders can be meaningfully attentive, bridging the requirements to both deliver and to care in the workplace. The NHS certainly has a range of leadership challenges, dealing with an unprecedented rate of change and increasing demand. Amidst many thoughts from the evening, there was a particular small moment that I noted, perhaps because it echoed a previous conversation earlier in the month about people “skipping over the niceties” before a conversation, and what the appropriate amount of social chatter was before diving into the main purpose of a conversation. The role of “small talk” is certainly one of those things that varies between cultures and individuals. I have a vivid memory from a global leadership training session, where a manager was left shell-shocked at the directness of one from another nation, while others were left deeply frustrated by the time it took some to ‘get to the point.’
During a conversation my mind was cast back to the early days of my career, helping to design communications protocols in telecommunications networks. In the early days of modems, those little devices which we still depend on to connect us to The Internet, the communication protocols had something called a ‘preamble’, which was the stage where each side ‘synchronised’. It is in some ways like the small talk that happens before the real communication. While it was only a small part of the specification and a small part of the process, it was essential to setting up a connection successfully. Without it, the systems would be out of sync, and the communication would be garbled, its meaning lost.
In human conversations the small talk at the beginning the conversation helps each side to establish where the other is coming from, and what ‘speed’ they are running at; We ‘get in sync.’ There is a big difference between having a conversation with somebody who has just received bad news from home, than someone who has just come from an update meeting about the project you want to talk about. Too often, busy leaders dive into a conversation without first paying attention to where the other party is ‘at’, and that context is critical for making sure communication is coming from the right place, in the right tone, and at the right pace. The preamble gives us guidance on how much context we need to set, and what barriers might be encountered.
Like many technical terms in the communications world, the word preamble is a borrowed one. It has a much longer history, most commonly in law. With its latin root meaning ‘going before’, the term describes the introduction to a document which outlines its purpose and approach. Small talk provides the opportunity for a transitional phase between the small talk and the main conversation, where you can clarify the purpose of the conversation. “It’s great to hear that your pet tarantula is doing so well in its agility lessons, I would definitely love to see those photographs. I was calling to talk about the budget overrun on the ‘mitigating phobias’ project, which McFly, our financial controller, is quite agitated about.”
Don’t despise the small talk, and don’t skip it. It’s not trivia, it ’synchronises’ the conversation, gets us ready to communicate, and provides a space to clarify the purpose of the conversation. Far too many daily organisational problems are because two people ran headlong into a conversation without taking the time to have each party clarify the purpose and context they entered the conversation with. Language is symbolic, and that means it is also inherently ambiguous. A single symbol (word) can be attached different meanings, and different intentions. Language depends on having a shared context in order to function, and language is always generated and interpreted through the filter of emotion. Pause and be attentive. Listen, check yourself, and give the other party a chance to ‘level set’. Pay attention to what isn’t said. Do they always mention a favourite pet, or an annoying co-worker, but today they ran straight into the conversation?
Remembering the details of small talk is a way to demonstrate that we care, that we have paid attention, that the other person was heard. Skipping the small talk, and missing the little things, often means that the big things never get to happen.