Using Small Talk to Improve Relationships with Debra Fine

On this week’s episode of The Leadership Habit, host Jenn DeWall welcomes Debra Fine back to The Leadership Habit! Debra’s first episode with us is our most listened-to episode of ALL TIME.  Her tips on mastering the fine art of small talk have helped people all over the world stop being wallflowers and start building relationships! 

This week she’s here to share her advice for using small talk to improve and enhance relationships. From networking to dating, small talk is the key to creating connections. Do you know how to use small talk to improve your relationships? 

Meet Debra Fine, Bestselling Author and Keynote Speaker 

A former engineer, Debra Fine, is the author of the bestselling book, The Fine Art of Small Talk: How to Start a Conversation, Keep It Going, Build Networking Skills–  and Leave A Positive Impression, and her recently released Beyond Texting the Fine Art of Face-to-Face Communication for Teenagers.  

Debra is a 25-plus-year member of the National Speakers Association. She presents onstage and virtually as a keynote speaker and trainer to hundreds of audiences around the world, including Cisco Systems, Wells Fargo Banks, Spectra Energy, The US Treasury Department, the University of Chicago Booth Graduate School of Business, Vermont Law School and hundreds of associations including insurance, real estate, legal, financial, engineering/technology, health care, and Chambers of Commerce and civic organizations across the country.

Debra’s media appearances include The Today Show, NPR, Morning Edition, Fox Business News, the New York Times, and CNN. She is your go-to expert on talking about small talk. 

Learning the Fine Art of Small Talk

As the episode opens, Jenn welcomes Debra back to the show and asks her to tell the audience a little about her journey to becoming a small talk expert. 

Debra explains, “Well, I’ll tell you. I’m the person who used to hate small talk. I thought it was stupid. Thought it was all about sports or the weather. I used to be an engineer, and that was what gave me the idea. I had no skill. I was no Jenn DeWall, let me tell you! 

I was not born with the gift of gab far from it. As an engineer, on occasion, I would, I would be at a convention. I represented projects to people who came up to a table in an exhibit hall. But if you put me into the hospitality suite, I was like a fly on the wall. 

So my leadership at that time would say, just mingle. Just all you do is mingle. Well, that’s really nice to tell me to do, but why don’t you tell me how to do it and what to say?

So I had an epiphany that maybe I could teach myself how to do it, and I did–  to a degree. And then I had another epiphany that maybe it wasn’t just me, I wasn’t the only dorky person on the planet standing by in a corner watching the world go around at a meeting,  at an industry conference, at an award ceremony or groundbreaking. 

So I did a lot of research and came up with the tools and the skills. What do you say to start a conversation? What kind of body language should you use? Listening skills, conversation killers to avoid,  even exit lines. What do you do to get away from somebody who can’t stop talking about their 8-year-old genius or their golf vacation?

So I studied it. Then I created programs for it, training programs, and keynotes, and wrote the book, The Fine Art of Small Talk. “

Engaging in Small Talk Builds Rapport

Later Jenn and Debra talk about the misconceptions of small talk. Debra admits she used to find it a waste of time, thinking that small talk topics like the weather or last night’s sports event were not worth the effort. Debra identifies as an introvert and puts a higher value on deeper conversations. 

However, Debra learned that small talk is like an appetizer for a new relationship. Starting with small talk and casual conversation creates a connection. Then through that conversation, we build a relationship. Whether that’s a business contact, a new friend, or a romantic relationship, it starts with small talk conversations. 

There is No Perfect Icebreaker

Debra advises the listeners to give themselves permission to take the risk of being the first one to initiate small talk with a stranger. As a former wallflower, she was always looking for the perfect icebreaker. However, the secret to small talk is to show genuine interest in something about the other person, so there is no one-size-fits-all icebreaker. 

She also suggests being ready for some conversation starters to fall flat, and it’s usually not personal. She gives the example of attending a networking event and starting a conversation with another attendee. If that attendee is someone who sells software to law firms, and you are an accountant at an engineering firm, they will probably want to move on from the conversation fairly quickly, and that has nothing to do with you as a person. 

Asking Better Questions

Later Jenn and Debra delve into how to ask better small talk questions to get the conversation started.  Debra cautions against asking yes or no questions or “How are you?” because it leads to short answers and awkward silences. 

Instead, have some open-ended questions in your mind to help prime the conversational pump. She suggests questions like: 

  • What’s keeping you busy these days? 
  • What’s the most challenging part of your job? 
  • What’s your favorite thing to do at these conferences? 

She also suggests that if you have found that you asked a yes or no question, have a second question ready to dig a little deeper and let the other person know you are actually interested in learning more about them. 

Giving Better Answers

Debra also discusses the importance of giving better answers when you are on the receiving end of questions. Be thoughtful about giving a few more details to give the other person something to work with. 

She explains, “You know, it’s exhausting because people don’t contribute, people don’t participate in part of the battle, Jenn, is that most of us are just in this zone where when somebody says, how are you? We say, fine. 

When somebody says, what’s been going on? We say not much or nothing, even though that’s not true. So I say to people, when you’re about to walk into somebody’s office when you’re gonna walk into a meeting, whether it’s a colleague or your boss says, how have you been? How are you? How’s it going? How’s your day? You know, how’s your year been? Be ready. 

Give an answer in a sentence so they have something to either work with or just plant a seed. If somebody says, how’s your year been? And you say it’s been great. You know, all my New Year’s resolutions have burned and gone down the toilet already. Wow. What were they? Thanks for giving me something to talk about with you that had nothing to do with the business at hand. How great is that? You know?”

Where to Learn More From Debra Fine

Be sure to listen to the entire episode to hear Debra’s tips and get some real-life examples from Jenn and Debra! If you want to learn more about the fine art of small talk, you can find more from Debra Fine here: 

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