Why waste your time with small talk when there are genuine human connections to be made with people who may have fascinating lives? Opening with generative questions can pave the way for further conversation and meaningful engagement instead of just idle chit-chat.
To set the stage for success, prepare yourself. Create an open mindset. Be curious about who is in the room. What if someone in the room has the information, influence, or connections you need right now to make something happen? What if you’re in a position to support a project that can really make a difference in the community or in someone’s life? There is always something of value: go on a treasure hunt in your conversations to find it!
Here are some small talk starters that promise the opportunity to build connection or broaden and deepen into a meaningful conversation.
What brings you to this gathering?
-Imagine you’re on your way home after this event and you are really glad you came. What could happen that would leave you with that experience?
What makes you come alive?
I have this hypothesis that any encounter has potential—I might have just the connection or piece of information you need, or vice versa. Are you game to explore with me where our potential synergy lies? If you get an affirmative response, here are some lines to explore:
-What’s the biggest obstacle in your way of achieving success right now? What do you need to overcome it?
-If you had three wishes to support your work, what would they be?
-Who do you most want to meet or talk with? (look for 3 degrees of separation)
-I’m working on ___________. What are your thoughts? What ideas do you have? Who should I talk with? Follow up by asking them to introduce you. Then reciprocate.
How do you know the hosts, or what is your connection to them? Tell me a story about a best experience you’ve had with them.
-Seek common connections.
-Share your own connection.
Be observant. Notice something about the person that is intriguing, curious, or likely to have a story behind it. Here are a couple of examples:
-What an unusual necklace. Is there a story behind it?
-What’s the symbol on your t-shirt about?
-You seem to connect very easily with children. What’s your secret?
-What your secret to being so at ease in settings like this?
You can open with, “What’s your favorite topic of conversation and why?” Then encourage that conversation.
Gatherings where small talk occurs are often great places for discovering interesting stories about people, as well as connecting with others in meaningful and important ways. Use your innate curiosity to develop powerful questions that turn small talk into conversations worth having!
About Cheri Torres:
Cheri Torres, Ph.D. brings the practice of Appreciative Inquiry, design thinking, and an ecological worldview to communities and organizations striving for sustainable growth. She has trained thousands of trainers and teachers in the use and practice of Appreciative Inquiry and Experiential Learning, with a particular focus on leadership development, teamwork, creativity, and sustainable collaboration. She has authored or co-authored numerous books and articles, the newest of which is Conversations Worth Having: Using Appreciative Inquiry to Fuel Productive and Meaningful Engagement co-authored with Jackie Stavros.
Of course, many of these decisions, like what color socks to wear or which route to take to the office, aren’t likely to make or break your day or your future. You make them quickly without much thought. Yet there are those big decisions that carry great importance because they quite literally affect your future and/or the future of others.
In working with professionals, business owners, and executives for over 25 years I’ve witnessed first-hand the stress experienced when leaders are faced with those big decisions. And once they have made a big decision it is challenging for a leader to explain their decision especially when short-term pain or dissatisfaction is bound to be involved.
How can you ensure that you make consistently great decisions?
By a “great decision” I mean a decision that you make with confidence and certainty. Of course, you never really know if a decision is the “right” decision or not until after the fact. But a great decision is one that you can stand behind no matter how things turn out, even after the fact. You can communicate your reasoning behind your decisions exceedingly well. And you can look back with no regrets because you sincerely believe that it was a sound decision given the information you had at the time.
I will, however, suggest that the key to making consistently great decisions requires more than good information and great instincts. Great decisions require that you clearly and simply define the basis upon which your decisions will be made.
So what is the basis for making great decisions?
The basis upon which great decisions are consistently and reliably made is a clear definition of what success looks like.
In order to make a great decision now, you must be crystal clear about the ultimate end game of how you want things to turn out in the future. This is true for both the big, longer term decisions, as well as the everyday decisions. You must be able to make decisions both about what you will do and what you will not do, as well as set priorities if you are to reliably produce exceptional results.
“Your job as a leader is to establish your organization’s core focus and not let anything distract you from that.” Traction by Gino Wickman
I teach people how to create a one-page Strategy in Action™ Plan that they can use as the basis for making great decisions with confidence. A client recently shared that after completing a plan with her team, they together evaluated every project on their list and asked: how well does this project serve the future as we have designed it?
In the process, they identified 2 projects that were clearly outside of the scope of how they defined success. They were popular projects – ones that a few individuals on her team were heavily invested in which made it tough to say we are going to stop doing these things. Yet because they could all clearly see that these projects no longer made sense the decision was obvious to all.
Clarity is power. If you want to make great decisions invest the time to get clear about the future as you want it to be. Define success simply and clearly and you will be able to confidently make great decisions and to help those you lead to do the same.
If you are in Florida and are interested in learning how to create your Strategy in Action Plan join me on 5/8/18 for the Strategy Power Day at FIT in Melbourne, FL.
The subject of collusion has been a hot topic in US politics these days. So I want to start by making it clear that this post is NOT about politics, but rather about the kinds of human behaviors on teams, in organizations and in life that keep us stuck vs. move us forward.
Take a moment and think about something you want to achieve that really matters to you right now that requires you work well with others.
For a work team, it could be something like implementing a new technology, launch a new product, or make a big positive change in your work environment. If you run a small business you might want to massively grow your clients and revenues. For a sports team, it could be the pursuit of a championship.
Now look at the group of people you are depending on to achieve that goal and ask yourself this question: Can we count on each other when it really counts?
A group of talented individuals does not necessarily translate into a high performing team. That’s why sometimes the underdog seemingly comes out of nowhere to win. In fact, high performing teams know that to succeed they must depend on each other as much, if not more, than their individual talents.
Perhaps even more importantly, they act as if their success is dependent on the success of others. They also believe that they can truly count on each other to do what is best for their team, to be treated with respect and fully supported no matter what.
Colluding for Mediocrity vs Collaborating for Greatness
The answer to this one question – can we count on each other when it really counts – can reveal whether your team is colluding for mediocrity or collaborating for greatness.
When a team is collaborating for greatness…
…Individuals judge their success based on their team’s success.
…Feedback offered may be tough, but it is always delivered in the spirit of calling for someone to be and do their best.
…Team members challenge each other to be great.
…Communication comes from a context of “I know you are great and I am going to push you to be the best you can be, even if you aren’t going to like what I have to say sometimes”.
…Teammates celebrate success together and take personal responsibility for their contribution to failure so they can together turn things around. There’s an attitude of “what can I do differently going forward to do my part to turn things around”.
…Individuals focus on what matters to the team and give the best of themselves even when they don’t feel like it.
When a team is colluding for mediocrity…
…Individuals judge success based on their own performance rather than the team’s performance.
…Feedback is designed to put people in their place or make them feel inferior.
…Team members avoid challenging each other to avoid being uncomfortable.
…Communication comes from a context of “I won’t call you on your bad attitude, behavior, etc., so you won’t call me on mine”.
…Teammates celebrate success together but look outside of themselves for the reasons why they failed. There’s an attitude of “I did my part but they didn’t do theirs”.
…Individual actions are based on what the individuals want rather than what is best for their team.
CAUTION: Before you begin to make assessments regarding whether your team is collaborating for greatness or colluding for mediocrity, beware of getting stuck in the paradigm of “collaboration means my team members are good and collusion means they are bad”. If you are human chances are you have engaged in every one of these behaviors.
The point of considering your teams behavior is to assess the gap between where you want to be and where you are now so you can find a way together to close the gap to performing at your best as a team.
Making the Shift from Collusion to Collaboration
There are a lot of reason why a team may fall into the behaviors of colluding for mediocrity. In fact, recognizing and getting honest about these behaviors can be used as a springboard for transforming collusion into collaboration.
Some of the main reasons why teams collude for mediocrity are fear of failure and a lack of trust in each other. Both of these things can cause us as individuals to retreat to what we feel we can control – often that means our own performance.
Yet what we all too easily forget is that one of the things we can control is how we relate to one another.
So before you consider what your teammates may or may not be doing or how they are behaving, a place to start is consider your own actions, attitudes and behaviors.
You can start by asking yourself, do my teammates believe they can count on me when it counts?
And then consider these questions…
…are you willing to be held accountable by your teammates for being and doing your best?
…are they willing to be held accountable for being and doing their best by you?
…what would I need to let go of or embrace to ensure my team gets what it needs most from me?
Collaborating for greatness requires that every member of a team makes decisions to do what is best for their team over and over. High performing team members are courageous enough to ask and allow their teammates to push them and hold them accountable for being and doing their absolute best.
Are you and your team colluding for mediocrity or collaborating for greatness?
Following is a guest post from a client, Lori Zipes, a Systems Engineer with the US Navy. She is someone who exemplifies the power of everyday leadership. I continue to be impressed and inspired by Lori’s courage in opening up challenging conversations in a way that others can hear and engage in authentically to cause positive change in her workplace. This is just one of the many examples of powerful conversations Lori initiates.
It’s always a nice discussion when female colleagues come to chat and share experiences and counsel. During the course of some recent informal mentoring sessions, two of my colleagues confided in me that they had cried in front of someone in a professional setting. Both showed a sense of regret, or a bit of shame; it’s difficult to articulate, but it was evident that they wished it had not happened. I shared with them both that I had at one point in my career been in an extremely difficult and frustrating position and had cried in front of MY BOSS (worst possible situation) several times. Every single time I was trying with all my might to not let it happen, but it did.
Neither of these women are people I would consider to be “weak” in any way. In fact, both are incredibly competent, dedicated and driven women who are excellent at their jobs. So it has been really bothering me that when tears fall, the perception is that the person can’t handle what is going on, that they are weak, that THEY are the problem. I hate that these women feel badly that they got visibly upset because, frankly, given the situation with which each was dealing, they had every right to be upset. These women care very deeply about what they are trying to accomplish. Their commitment to success runs deep, and they take the responsibility of their position very seriously. When things are very wrong, rather than saying, “Oh well, it’s just work,” they get upset. That strikes me as not anything related to weakness. In fact, it seems to me a sign of strength. A strength of commitment to their organization or our mission that should be appreciated, not seen as a flaw or failure. These are the people who will likely fix what is wrong.
So the next time you see someone getting emotional over work, I ask you to consider this:
Instead of seeing them as weak, consider that they may be one of your most valuable assets.
Lori works as an engineer for the US Navy and is a “graduate” of Susan’s Leadership in Action™ program. She and several of her colleagues have been engaged in proactive efforts to support women, and encourage them to aspire to leadership positions. Initiating perspective-changing conversations like this one is part of their strategy.
The typical way of seeking meaningful work—or vocation— is to figure out how to match your strengths with possible work or professions. Countless books and processes exist for identifying your personality, strengths, and interests to help you discover whether you are aiming for work that will be a good fit. That’s valid and valuable, but it is only part of what is needed.
The word vocation is rooted in the Latin for “voice.” Finding your vocation, then, first asks that you listen to the voice of your life. This is not the voices telling you what you should do to achieve success, or the ones telling you to follow in somebody’s footsteps or to satisfy harsh inner critics. It is not the voice of your ego demanding with grim determination that you make your life something it’s not.
In Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer writes, “Vocation does not mean a goal that I pursue. It means a calling that I hear. Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.”
Have you ever noticed how life itself is informing you and inviting you to show up, whether the work is what you had planned or not? Listening to your life speak—all of your life, through heartaches and mistakes, as well as your joys—can help you find the clarity and courage to bring your true self to your life’s work.
It isn’t about showing up as your work self or best self. It’s about showing up as your whole self. Showing up fully as a leader is not limited to bringing the parts you think are expected, demanded, or acceptable.
We invite you to reconnect who you are (your soul) with what you do (your role). Note that we say reconnect, not connect. Our assumption is that deep inside everyone is a true self that knows itself well. Other voices, authority figures, circumstances, and fears can cause you to hide or forget many aspects of your essential core self, but those aspects do not have to remain hidden or lost. Vocation is not a function of external expectations or aptitude or talent. Vocation is an inner sense of what your life is asking you to do, which is to reconnect your soul and role. You might say that a “calling” is your life speaking, and vocation is your response to that call with your choice of work. (Have you ever heard of the call-and-response style of music? Examples include old-time gospels, “My Generation” by The Who, and “I’ll Take You There” by the Staple Singers.)
Leaders don’t reconnect soul and role by following a set of instructions. They do so over time as they integrate their sense of self—their whole self—into their work.
Vocation doesn’t have to mean doing one job or type of work for the rest of your life. Some leaders purposely set foot on the path of vocation, predisposed to seek meaningful work; others say they never thought of their work as a calling but more like “a special project for now.”
How do you define the word calling as it relates to your career? Do you approach your career or other areas of your life as a calling?
There is no passion to be found playing small—in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.
About Shelly Francis
The common thread throughout the career of Shelly L. Francis has been bringing to light best-kept secrets while bringing people together to facilitate positive impact. She does that in the book, The Courage Way: Leading and Living with Integrity, which she wrote on behalf of the Center for Courage & Renewal. She has worked as the Center’s marketing and communications director since 2012.
Do you care more about something you are doing or something others are doing? I know the question is a little vague – but go with me here. Let me restate the question: Do you care more about the renovation at your neighbor’s house or the plans to update your own home?
Here’s the point I’m trying to make: People don’t generally get as excited about what other people are doing as they do about something they are doing. If people in our organizations do not feel connected to the vision of our organization, any progress or accomplishments in this arena will create little passion, enthusiasm, energy, or satisfaction.
If your people feel disconnected from the vision this is bad news for the organization and your people – especially for Top Talent. Our research reveals their deeply held desire to make a difference. That’s why a Bigger Vision is one of the critical elements to create a Talent Magnet.
So, if you are trying to create a place that attracts Top Talent, what is the leader’s responsibility? Here’s how we begin to answer this question in the Talent Magnet Field Guide…
A vision is of no value unless people know it. But, let’s face it, there is something more important than knowing. For a vision to move people to action, they must feel personally connected to it. Vision-driven organizations create stakeholders who share the quest. That’s why a leader has the responsibility to Foster Connection.
Research shows that top performers want to make a difference in the world, and therefore, they desire meaningful work that creates impact beyond products and profits. Your job as a leader is to ensure team members know their daily actions matter to the bigger picture and leave no doubt the work they do on a daily basis fuels the accomplishment of the vision. You must help them connect the dots.
As the leader, you cannot delegate the vision. Your responsibility is to continually clarify, protect, and model the way forward. If you are diligent, your best people will become ambassadors of impact and your influence will spread. Additionally, your company will become a place where others want to be a part of the movement.
If you really want to attract great talent, be sure your existing team feels a real and personal connection to the vision.
About Mark Miller
Mark Miller is the Vice President of High-Performance Leadership at Chick-fil-A. In addition to his newly released book, Talent Magnet: How to Attract and Keep the Best People, he has also written The Secret: What Great Leaders Know and Do (2007), Chess Not Checkers (2015), and Leaders Made Here (2017). Today, over 1 million copies of Mark’s books are in print in more than two dozen languages.
Be it General Motors, the Veterans Administration, or the U.S. Congress, the answer to the problems these organizations face is always the same: change the organization’s culture.
Culture change appears to be a daunting task. A task so big, so formidable, we don’t even know where to start. So we give up. We go along all the while blaming the culture for the way things are. This is convenient, but hardly useful.
Culture Change: Yes, You Can
There is a way to shift your organization’s culture that is within your control and is not beyond your reach: Change the way you lead and participate in meetings.
Yes, meetings, those mind- numbing, energy- sapping experiences that we love to complain about but do little to change. With 11 million meetings per day in the U.S. alone and half of them unproductive, the ripple effect of changing a meeting can reach far beyond the meeting itself.
Leadership expert Peter Block writes in his foreword to Terms of Engagement: New Ways of Leading and Changing Organizations, “The structure, aliveness, deadness, whisper or shout of a meeting teaches and persuades us more about the culture of our workplace than all the speeches about core values and the new culture we are striving for … What we call meetings are critical cultural passages that create an opportunity for engagement or disengagement.”
Meetings are cultural snapshots of how people in the organization relate to each other. They tell us all we need to know about power and authority, decision-making, communication patterns and the way people relate to each other.
Ford Changed the Culture by Changing the Meetings
Sara Miller Caldicott describes in a recent Forbes article how CEO Allan Mullaly’s use of meetings was vital to Ford’s turnaround. “… it would have been a moot victory had Mulally not also changed the way meetings were conducted, the way supplier agreements were developed, and the way people treated each other day-to-day. It has been reported that before Mulally took over, internal meetings at Ford were like mortal combat. Executives regularly looked for vulnerability among their peers and practiced self-preservation over collaboration. Mulally changed all that, making executive meetings a safe environment where data could be shared without blame, improving collaboration and setting the stage for innovation success.”
While I’m sure the meetings Sara Miller Caldicott describes at Ford were efficient, that was not what she chose to highlight. The new ways of working together that these meetings fostered made the difference at Ford. Success in these meetings required a combination of listening, inquiry, and straight talk. Caldicott goes on, “By personally modelling candor and willingness to openly speak about complex, taboo subjects, Mulally built a safe operating environment for his direct reports.”
Start the Change by Changing the Agenda
Productive, collaborative meetings require a different kind of meeting agenda, an agenda that puts as much emphasis on the meeting’s process as its content. We have found that the Meeting Canoe™ gives meeting leaders such a framework, one that produces seismic shifts in the way people meet.
How to Change Your Culture One Meeting at a Time with the Meeting Canoe™
Creating meetings where people feel Welcome and Connected to the task at hand helps create an environment that supports fruitful dialogue. Listening, straight talk, and inquiry are the essential skills needed in the Discover and Elicit portion of the agenda. Being clear at the outset about the process the group will use to make decisions gives everyone a clear understanding of the rules of the game. Attending to the end provides closure to the experience, giving everyone an understanding of the decisions reached, the path forward and a way to improve future meetings.
When your meeting carries with it the electric charge of autonomy, challenge, learning, meaning and feedback, your meetings become productive work experiences. The more features you use, the better your meeting will be.
• Autonomy – The ability to influence the meeting’s design and its outcome
• Challenge – The prospect of stretching your skills
• Learning – The opportunity to learn and grow
• Meaning – The chance to work on something that is important
• Feedback – The capability of measuring the meetings progress
You Have the Power to Change the Culture
Meetings provide a rapid way to shift your organization’s culture no matter where you sit in the organization. The beauty about what happens in meetings is they are under our control. If you are a meeting leader, you can use your power to create meetings such as those conducted within Ford– or not. You can use the Meeting Canoe framework– or not. You can create meetings that carry an electric charge– or not. You can decide whether your meeting experience will be one of self-preservation or collaboration. It’s up to you. When’s your next meeting? Head for the Meeting Canoe.
More about Dick Axelrod
Dick and is wife Emily Axelrod are pioneers in creating employee involvement programs to effect large-scale organization change, and co-founded the Axelrod Group in 1981. Dick is also a lecturer in University of Chicago’s Masters in Threat and Response Management Program, and a faculty member in American University’s Masters in Organization Development program. Dick and Emily created the Conference Model®, an internationally recognized high-involvement change methodology.
Together, Emily and Dick are frequent keynote speakers and co-authors. Their latest book is Let’s Stop Meeting Like This: Tools to Save Time and Get More Done it outlines a flexible and adaptable system used to run truly productive meetings in all kinds of organizations―meetings where people create concrete plans, accomplish tasks, build connections, and move projects forward.
There is a difference between positive thinking that moves you forward and positive thinking that is nothing more than wishful thinking. Monica Diaz wrote a timeless article a while back titled “Positive Thinking Might be Your Demise” in which she articulates this distinction.
I believe in the power of thinking positively and by nature, I am an optimist. Yet being positive doesn’t magically overcome the problems we face in life or the workplace. It takes honesty, sometimes brutal honesty to turn a challenging situation around and create the kind of workplace and kind of results to which we aspire.
Consider that if you want positivity to rule the day, you need to consider the systemic implications of positive thinking in organizations.
In 1952 Norman Vincent Peale‘s now famous book, The Power of Positive Thinking was published. The power that positive thinking can have in our lives is today an instilled cultural belief: positive thinking is a good thing and being positive is a good and the right way to be. So true, yes?
Then again, maybe not. Could being positive turn out to be a bad thing sometimes?
While most of us, at least those who are passionate about making a meaningful impact wherever we go, would rather be surrounded by people who have a positive, “can do” attitude, I have seen far too many examples of this desire feed a culture of people who are afraid to say anything that could be construed as “negative”.
The problem comes in not because people have both positive and negative things to say, but rather when there is a belief that positive is “good” and “negative” is bad. This can become perilous for any leader or organization when people either withhold the bad news or sugar coat it with a positive spin that clouds the real issue.
In fact, sometimes what may occur as “negative” is actually a very good thing for business. Yet many leaders fear it. They fear what will happen if they allow a negative conversation to go too far – that somehow negativity will take over and they will lose control. It seems far safer and even smarter to deal with the complaints one on one, behind closed doors.
But it is perhaps the ultimate illusion that we can control what people really think and believe or what they will talk about.
And the more we try to prevent honest, authentic communication from happening openly in the name of “positive is good and negative is bad”, the more interesting what cannot be talked about becomes to people behind the scenes or as they say “around the water cooler”. When invited into the open, difficult topics and negative assessments can lead to constructive conversation. In the background, however, negative sentiments and observations rarely lead to anything more than gossip that distracts us at best and fuels resignation and cynicism at worst.
And that is when focusing only on the “positive” can really cost you. It’s easy to listen to the good news, the positive messages. It is a lot harder to listen to the bad news, the negative messages, especially when they are directly about you or something you did. Yet it is in how openly we can listen to the things that are hard to hear that will tell people whether we want to hear what is good for us, or whether we are interested in hearing what is real and true for them. It can take courage, but a willingness to invite and hear the whole truth might just be the source of your biggest breakthroughs and most rewarding progress.
If you want a place to start, try asking this question of those you lead: is there something you have been afraid to tell me, but think I really need to hear for the sake of our success?
You might be surprised by what you hear. You may also be positively surprised by how much hearing the whole truth moves things forward.
There are countless articles about new year’s resolutions and how they either work or they don’t. Each year I choose 3 words to guide my everyday choices throughout the year. This year my words are Play, Produce, and Prosper. This practice has served me well through the last few years as it helps to keep me focused every day on the experience of life I want to be creating.
Yet, of all the tips and techniques I have applied to set myself up and support others in setting themselves up for an exceptional year there is one that has yielded consistently great results – choose 1 big thing to focus on at a time.
Now, of course, you will work on many things this year. You will likely have more than one goal as well. The best way for me to explain what I mean by “one big thing” is to ask you a few questions:
What one thing, when you accomplish it this year, would have you say it has been an exceptional year?
What one thing could you focus on that has the potential to contribute to ALL of your goals?
What one thing could you accomplish that would give you the most joy?
Here are a few personal examples…
Last year my “one thing” in my personal life was to reclaim my health naturally. I ended the year 20 pounds lighter, reduced my cholesterol by 69 points, and my blood pressure is now the same as it was 30 years ago. Progress in that one thing gave me energy, motivation, and satisfaction that carried over into every area of my life.
My “one thing” in my business this year is to successfully launch my leadership and strategy programs internationally. I’ve developed and piloted my programs over the last few years, and now it is time to formally launch so I can reach more people. This endeavor is central to every one of my business goals this year. It requires that I develop skills and get support in areas that are not yet my strengths so I know already that I will grow a great deal in the coming year.
Now, will I continue to serve my consulting and coaching clients well and take on new clients? Of course! Yet it will also expand what I can offer my clients and the impact I can make beyond the time I spend with them. Will I continue to speak at conferences and other events? Absolutely! But now I have a way to continue to work with the amazing people I meet along the way.
This is the one thing I will make progress on every day in my business no matter what. You see, a focus on “one thing” isn’t about not doing anything else. It is, however, about choosing what will get your focused and ongoing attention every day until it is achieved.
And what I have learned from choosing “one thing” each year is that by promising yourself that you will accomplish that one thing and following through every day, you will also make steady progress in every area of your life and work that really matters.