Does small talk make difficult conversations easier?

In a recent Virtual Session about ‘Difficult Conversations’ we shared the importance of a key step to briefly build rapport before embarking on the real conversation so that both people in the conversation feel more comfortable.  The sorts of conversations that people felt were ‘difficult’ were things like poor performance, conversations about health or personal matters and conversations often related to change, like redundancy, different work practices or the need to move offices etc.

Whilst someone suggested that spending too long on small talk before a ‘difficult conversation’ could have a negative effect it seems that even a short conversation about the weather, or other unrelated matters, might actually improve your cognitive abilities to handle the subsequent conversation better.

In studies at the University of Michigan, USA*, researchers found that engaging in relatively trivial conversation before taking on a cognitive task boosted ‘brain power’ better than other intellectual ‘brain games’ or a control situation.  One of the reasons they think accounts for it is to do with being able to take the perspective of the other person, effectively to ‘mind read’.  This may be related to an evolutionary link between  social pressures and the emergence of intelligence.  Results also showed that even a slightly competitive interaction before the cognitive test boosted results and the researchers concluded ‘social functioning can enhance core mental capacities.’

To resolve the issue in the best way you both need to keep your wits about you and ideally work on how to solve the problem together.  The focus of challenge for both people should be the problem and not each other personally because that leads to the best outcomes. If you’re about to have a conversation with someone about a difficult topic then it can feel quite threatening, for you as well as them, and that threat can reduce your capacity to think clearly.

So if having a short introductory ‘chat’ before the real conversation improves your capacity to think clearly, plan, empathise and make decisions (all high level cognitive activities)  then the chances are that the following conversation will be more successful.

Our keys to a successful conversation are:

Plan, get yourself into the right mindset, build rapport, introduce the topic, listen to both sides and then solve the problem together.  Finally agree what actions need to be taken.

For more evidence based ideas about successfully working through some of the challenges of change give us a call or send us an email.  Here’s an example of a Virtual Programme about ‘Sticky Change’