Small Talk That Isn’t So Small

A few days ago, one of my students chose a question to ask her classmates in our daily community circle. Every student would get a chance to answer or had the choice to pass if they didn’t want to answer. She stood in a circle of her fifth grade peers and asked, “If there was one thing about yourself you would change, what would it be?” My jaw dropped a bit because they’ve been choosing questions like, “If you had a superpower, what would it be?” and “What’s your favorite subject?” The juiciest one chosen so far this semester was, “If you could change gender for a day, would you do it?” This sparked heated discussion about gender bias and how teachers treat boys and girls differently.

The question she chose on this particular morning, however, was different in how intensely personal it was. She held the talking stick (we actually use a ball) and tossed it from hand to hand. “I think, there are things I don’t do because I’m afraid of them, and I would change that about myself. I also think that sometimes if I’m not good at something, I just stop trying, and I would change that too.”

I was amazed by her courage. I’d like to say that each child rose to this challenge and shared in an equally personal way, but alas, it’s not the case. She took a huge leap, but not a single student rose to meet her. Now, of course, this speaks to their age, their increasing awareness of and need for peer approval, but mostly, it speaks to the level of trust in our classroom. We obviously have a ways to go.

If I was to answer her question today, I’d say, “If I could change one thing about myself, I would get better at chatting with people and building trusting relationships.” Now, the rest of this post is intensely embarrassing, and I have questioned over and over again if I want to post it at all. The first thing that screams in my head is, “You’re a teacher, and you’re admitting that you’re BAD at building relationships? What are you doing?” Well, I think I’m a good teacher, and I think my students like me, respect me and have been growing enormously. I have evidence for all of that. However, through my own personal observations, I also believe I have work to do to fine-tune, to model what I hope to see in my students, to continue building trust in ways that allow conversations like the one above to move forward.

Now, bear with me. It seems like I’m about to tangent, but I’ll bring it back around. I mentioned something in my last post, namely my aversion to small talk. I don’t like small talk. I generally want to skip the pleasantries and talk about what’s “important”. Discussing what you did last weekend or bemoaning the awful traffic or weather isn’t on my list of favorite things to do. I don’t find chitchatting with people I don’t know well very comfortable or easy in most situations. This doesn’t mean I can’t talk to people or speak publicly. I do it every day. I LOVE to talk, but it takes a certain level of comfort, trust (that again) and, frankly, interest in the topic. Or in the case of teaching, it takes a specific format and the expectation that it’s what I’m supposed to be doing.  If I don’t have those things, I can experience an underlying anxiety in conversation.

All of this points to the truth that I am a natural introvert. So? I realized something recently, or rather, put two and two together.

When my friends have asked me, “Why did you go in to teaching?” My response has always been: “I like kids, and I like learning. Simple.”

One thing I love is a child’s natural honesty – their propensity for just saying what they’re thinking. They also tend to have the ability to discuss difficult issues that are important to them without censorship. In addition, the issues they struggle with are largely the same as an adult’s issues in a less diluted form: making and maintaining friendships, achieving self-efficacy, finding motivation, failure, embarrassment, etc.

In other words, a child can cut through the noise and get to the heart of an issue in an innocent and often insightful way. 

This is not the “two and two” realization, however. That realization is that I’ve used this motivation for teaching as a crutch.

In teaching, I can spend all day with kids. I can talk to them straight about things that really matter to them and to me in an academic forum. However, this doesn’t mean I’ve gotten any better at comfortably building personal relationships with people (including children) in informal, non-structured environments. In fact, I have found it difficult to talk to children outside the structure of a learning activity. I’ll ask a child, “How are you?” If their answer is, “Fine.” The conversation often stops there.

So? Another part of the two and two realization is that this is a problem in teaching. I’ve been ignoring it, and perhaps necessarily, focusing on pedagogy and strategies so intently that the one thing – building meaningful personal relationships with students – the one thing that I’ve read is so important over and over – is still escaping me at a basic level.  I think I’m a good teacher, but I also think I could be better at building personal relationships, the kind that have nothing to do with school and the kind that show each student that I care about them as a whole person. This, of course, leads to trust.

Bam. This is where it comes full circle. I wonder if the reason none of my students were willing to answer a personal question that required some vulnerability is because I haven’t been regularly and actively modelling building trusting relationships in a holistic, informal way through talk that reveals their personal interests, dreams, aspirations, and other things not related to the academic topic at hand.

Well, after thinking about this, I asked myself, “Is it really that hard? What’s the secret?” So, I started researching. I like videos, so I scoured YouTube for helpful hints. I stumbled upon videos by Marcus Oakley at www.yourcharismacoach.com.

Now, I’m sorry Marcus, but it’s embarrassing to admit that I’ve watched so many of your seemingly endless number of videos. It’s embarrassing because some (and I wouldn’t blame them) would find your demeanor and topics to be quite saccharine. I’m also quite skeptical of the fact that you seem to mostly have “great conversations” with women. Reason for this? 

Anyway, ultimately, what I got from his videos is that talking to people, chitchatting is a skill. It’s not magic. It’s not a secret, even. It’s a skill that can be learned. It can also be the means necessary for building the rapport that leads to deeper conversation.

It may not feel natural or comfortable at first; however, the benefits can be real. People who are naturally good at chatting with others are said to have charisma, something special about them. A gift. If you’re naturally good at it, then maybe that’s true, but I no longer believe there’s some great mystery of confidence or charisma and that’s that.

Tips and Tricks:

  • People love talking about things they’re passionate about.
  • Many people like talking about themselves.
  • People love compliments.
  • People feel more comfortable when you smile and are enthusiastic.
  • As people feel more comfortable, simple, friendly contact builds rapport (handshakes, a touch on the arm).
  • People don’t enjoy the third degree, but simple, short questions that invite them to share opinions, thoughts or experiences will engage people in conversation.
  • Wait a second to reply. Don’t interrupt.
  • Eye contact, but don’t be weird about it.
  • Be aware of people’s body language and let them go when you’ve overstayed your welcome. Needing to go isn’t necessarily personal.
  • Don’t talk too fast. It’s overwhelming.
  • Respond with appropriate, related experiences, but also listen, a lot!
  • Ask question related to experiences you know are positive for them.
  • Repeat one or two words they last said to show you’re listening.
  • Silence doesn’t have to be awkward, but a chance to take stock of where you want to go next in the conversation.
  • People appreciate others who have a sense of humor about themselves. It helps them see that you’re not judging them. 
  • Don’t be afraid to take a ribbing or to admit mistakes gracefully.
  • Be an observer. Use observations about others to start or continue conversation. People like to feel noticed.

The tips and tricks I got from Marcus Oakley’s videos and others are really just common sense, and even those who are uncomfortable with “small talk” are perfectly capable of understanding them intellectually. The real trick is putting them into action. Marcus’ main piece of advice is to practice. It’s that simple. Also, that it won’t always go well, but this is not the end of the world.

After “practicing” for a week, I already notice a difference. Kids and colleagues and others have responded positively. AND it makes me feel good to make them feel good. I’ve also noticed that taking this approach can lead to conversation that is in no way “small,” but is actually building real connection.

So, if there are any introverts out there, know this–it’s not magic, it’s a skill, and if you’re willing to give it a try, you’ll be rewarded in more ways than you can imagine. Not just in teaching, but in life.

If you’re not in the mood to watch Marcus Oakley’s painfully positive self-help videos, here’s a link to an article on the topic: http://theweek.com/article/index/253693/how-to-make-people-like-you-6-science-based-conversation-hacks

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