Summary: Turning Small Talk into Big Talk By Jan Janura
Summary: Turning Small Talk into Big Talk By Jan Janura

Summary: Turning Small Talk into Big Talk By Jan Janura

Be Intentional

Wouldn’t you like to experience a meaningful discussion the next time you gather with a group of interesting people? (Or even uninteresting people—table questions work there as well!) Just think of it: rather than settling for a bunch of surface-level chitchat, why not take the reins with some purposeful questions? You no longer have to dread going to a dull dinner party.

All you need to do is present an interesting topic for the group to consider, and then guide your guests in an orderly manner as they express themselves and share what comes to their minds. If that sounds difficult or intrusive, just give it a try. Just one time! I promise, you won’t be disappointed.

And the more you continue to grow as a practitioner of table questions, the more you’ll have the opportunity to orchestrate your questions and conversations as you see fit. That means you’ll be able to direct your gatherings toward the places you want them to go—rather than being taken as a polite but unwilling hostage to the whims of your guests!


Ask the Right Questions

All of us have probably left a job interview or first date and said to ourselves, “I wish they had asked more questions.” There’s nothing worse than sitting through an interview or meeting and feeling invisible. It might feel like your words or actions don’t matter. When you do finally speak up or get asked a question, others might interrupt you or speak over you. It might feel as if your contributions don’t matter.

It can feel the same way for people in social settings, and that’s why table questions are so important. They encourage everyone to participate in a lively discussion. Even introverted or shy guests will want to be a part of it. If you’re aware that a friend or someone’s spouse might be a little uncomfortable speaking about themselves or opening up in front of others, I would encourage you to start with less intrusive or provocative queries and then escalate to more thought-provoking questions later. Use a few icebreakers to instigate conversation when someone might be reluctant.

Here are a few examples of questions that might get one’s feet wet: Where did you grow up? What did you like about it most? What’s your dream job? If you didn’t have to worry about money, what’s the first thing you would do? What foreign countries have you traveled to? Which one was your favorite and why? Do you like to cook? What is your favorite meal to prepare?


Make It Fun

People want to laugh and enjoy themselves. It’s up to you to give them a reason to do so. Studies have shown that laughter releases endorphins, which makes us feel good about ourselves and others. Dr. John R. “Jack” Schafer, a former behavioral analyst with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and author of The Like Switch: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Influencing, Attracting, and Winning People Over, wrote,

This good feeling creates a bond between two people and imbues a sense of togetherness in groups. The Golden Rule of friendship states that if you make people feel good about themselves, they will like you—and laughter does just that. It makes you feel good about yourself and the person who triggered your laughter.

Schafer found that laughter signals intelligence and produces better long-term relationships too. In order to set the right example, you should do everything in your power to set the right mood for your guests. That starts with being a warm, relaxed, and gracious host. Greet your guests by name as much as possible. Make sure everyone is comfortable. And if you’re hosting a dinner, do your best to provide tasty food, good wine, and an engaging atmosphere.


Stay Out of the Way

It’s a common misconception that all conversations are supposed to be balanced in terms of participation. This is especially true with table questions. New hosts and conveners often believe that every guest should talk the same amount—that everyone should have the same size slice of the conversational pie.

In reality, that’s not the case. People have different personalities and different experiences, and everyone prefers to share in amounts that make them individually comfortable. Some people enjoy talking more; others prefer talking less. You’ll actually be creating more problems than you solve if your goal as a host is to divide up a three-hour dinner party so that each of your ten guests talks for exactly eighteen minutes. Remember that fairness isn’t everyone getting exactly the same thing; it’s everybody getting what they need.

Instead, your primary goal should be to make sure that everyone has an equal opportunity to join in the conversation. That being said, there will be times when one or more people dominate a discussion to the point of causing a problem. And when that happens, you as the convener need to step in and resolve the issue.

Most importantly, be polite, even as you’re trying to steer them along. You don’t want to be rude. Instead, you want to be graceful to them, but you need to get them to stop talking to give somebody else a chance.

How should you do that? Good question! You can look for a pause in a person’s dialogue and then jump in with, “That’s a great point, Mike. I really appreciate you sharing it. Jim, we haven’t heard from you yet. What’s on your mind?” In the vast majority of cases, Mike will catch your hint and correct himself without any conflict or any need for a dramatic showdown.


Set the Ground Rules

You must first understand that certain people might be easily offended when it comes to certain sensitive topics. That’s why the author can’t overstate how important it is to have parameters and boundaries in place if you’re going to engage in these kinds of discussions. Your intention as the convener is not to fan any flames, but it’s important to have a plan in place in case an argument breaks out so you can get the gathering back on track in a peaceful way.

Before you start your table questions, guests must know that they need to control themselves and avoid heated conversations that might damage relationships. It is a good idea to lay the ground rules and explain your motives before asking the questions. These are some of the ground rules the author employ:

Remind your guests that they’re all friends, and it’s everyone’s responsibility to behave and have respect for other people’s perspectives. Explain that they’re there to share views, not to convince the others that their opinion is right. There should be no shouting or interrupting. No one is allowed to belittle, disregard, dismiss, or minimize the beliefs or opinions of someone else. Let them know that they can ask questions, but they cannot judge others or attack them with foul language. It’s a dinner party, not a pro wrestling match. It’s probably a good idea to limit the amount of wine you’re serving on these nights to avoid loose tongues.


Lead by Listening

According to Ximena Vengoechea, author of Listen Like You Mean It: Reclaiming the Lost Art of True Connection, creating a listening mindset requires using empathy, curiosity, and humility. Vengoechea also writes that “staying present is essential for empathetic listening to occur, the kind of listening where we are able to connect beyond the superficial, to a deeper, more meaningful, emotional level with others.”

The physical act of listening with your ears also connects to listening with your eyes, that is, showing in your own body language that you are listening to them and also viewing their own body language. A study called “Active Listening” by researchers in the health care and technology sectors gives valuable information that applies to conversation on all levels: “A person’s body language can show their true emotions on the subject matter even when their words may be saying something different. Some body language examples include walking abruptly away after receiving or giving information, rolling of the eyes, sighing, shaking heads, lacking eye contact, placing hands on hips, and having a rigid posture.”

Even the way in which your toes are pointing could be a telling factor, especially if others in your group are savvy about body language. Point your big toes away from each other instead of having them both point inward. Doing little things—like being aware of how your feet are positioned and what they may be silently saying—and making simple adjustments to be more intentional about listening to those around you helps you become a better listener. And with this knowledge, you’ll be able to spot what other feet in the room are telling you too!