Tag Archives: The Big Talk
Posted on Monday, February 23rd, 2015
The human heart is a truly amazing mechanism; so hard working and tough under pressure, but oh so easily damaged.
We all have heartbreaks (I can’t even discuss my 7th grade boyfriend saga. A tragedy of epic proportions). Disappointments and suffering and grief and anguish are all part of life. Hooray for us!
We have all heard bad news and immediately gone to that big Rolodex in our head searching, desperately, for the right thing to say. Or we’ve skipped the search and blurted out something clichéd and trite before quickly excusing ourselves to privately negotiate our own foot into our mouth. Or — the worst crime of all — we’ve been faced with bad news and said absolutely nothing.
Neil Rosenthal writes a stellar column in The Denver Post appropriately titled “Relationships.” His January 29th piece highlights the importance of an empathetic response. As Rosenthal points out, a thoughtful response is certainly needed in times of tragedy, but even the day-to-day frustrations that affect us all would benefit from a kind and compassionate acknowledgement.
When dealing with a loss, phrases like: Time heals all wounds or It was his time to go are common. And sort of a cop out. Why? Because they don’t really mean anything to the person who is suffering. They are just words. Words that can leave the listener feeling worse than when they started. Because only words that “honor your feelings of loss and sorrow,” writes Rosenthal, truly honors the emotions around an issue that causes turmoil.
Rosenthal, referencing How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It
written by Pat Love (not kidding) and Steven Stosny, makes a case for how important it is to “step into the puddle” with others. Stepping into the puddle means offering our “heartfelt presence, caring concern and participation” when others need it most. And even when they don’t. By employing the puddle technique to everyday life, communication and connection are bound to improve.
So, how exactly does one ‘step into the puddle’ without getting drenched? By offering statements with a little more meat and a lot less fluff — like this:
When your spouse walks in after a long day of work, it’s temping to pull out the eye roll or the Ha! You think YOUR day was long, well let me just tell you about MY day… instead try saying:
I am so sorry about your day and I am so glad to have you home safe and sound.
When someone is dealing with a death, resist the He’s in a better place or Call me if you need anything and try This must be really difficult; I can’t imagine what it feels like to lose a sibling. Your brother was one of the funniest men I’ve ever met — I still laugh at the fun we had skiing in Vail. How are you handling everything?
Whatever the situation — death, job loss, hard day at work, tough day at home with children or even the tragedy of a 7th grade break-up, by acknowledging, truly, the heartache of others, we can make a big impact and — just maybe — lessen the blow.
This blog was originally posted on The Huffington Post.
Posted on Friday, January 9th, 2015
I had grand plans to stay on track over the holiday season, but people kept FORCING me to eat and drink and be merry. It’s rude to turn down a glass of champagne. And a cookie. And then another cookie. It is.
As I was trying to figure out my 2015 resolutions while sweating it out on the elliptical, I had an epiphany. I — anyone really — can lose five pounds immediately by doing one simple thing: putting down the devices.
By ridding ourselves of the laptop, and smartphone, and e-reader, and tablet, and ear buds, and Go Pro camera, and selfie stick and charger (and backup charger and solar charger) and whatever else may qualify we can experience instant weight loss. Like magic. Try it:
Hold all your devices and get on the scale.
Toss all your devices and get on the scale.
See? It works.
But we all know that when it comes to these hand-held handcuffs it’s really not about the physical weight, is it? It’s about how being constantly connected, in-touch, and interrupted can take a toll.
I talked to a handful of mothers who were in a quandary about gifting their children with smartphones or tablets. Why? Because they were afraid of losing their children to the ever-addictive world of electronics. One parent sighed, “I’m afraid I won’t see him after 9AM Christmas morning if I give him the iPhone 6 he’s been asking for since August.”
But electronic addiction doesn’t just affect the under-20 crowd. My friend’s father-in-law received a Fit Bit and was so enthralled by the constant feedback he actually fell off the curb while trying to amass his 10,000 steps. So much for a peaceful walk on a chilly morning. He’s currently chilling his swollen ankle with an ice pack.
By now we know that technology is not going away. And technology is not a bad thing. Just like cookies and champagne aren’t bad things (the exact opposite in my opinion, but I digress) especially if enjoyed responsibly. It’s just about a bit of moderation and employing some boundaries or, if that’s too strong a word for you, some flexible agreements.
Maybe 2015 COULD be about losing the weight of technology. Maybe it’s time to sit down as a family and determine when using devices is ok and when it is not. Not ok might be in the early morning hours before the first — or second or third — cup of coffee. Or at night in bed, considering that blue light is apparently Mr. Sandman’s archenemy. Perhaps dinner and the hour after school is tech-free, ensuring that you actually have a shot of seeing your child’s face instead of the top of his head. Together, create a framework for when it is ok — the hour before dinner or the 15 minutes before school as long as other tasks have been completed.
And how about workplace situations? Is it really necessary to place the smartphone on the conference room table? Probably not. The office is tech-heavy as it is so an hour without being attached to a device is like vacation! If you’re running the meeting, offer an empty basket at the entrance to the meeting with a note that simply states: Please silence phones and leave in this basket until the meeting adjourns. You will get some huffs and eye-rolls (after all, we are all a little childish when it comes to putting down a toy/gadget of any sort), but your colleagues might just thank you later for the free weight loss.
I recently came across this very same topic in a magazine article about graciously managing technology when entertaining guests. It was in a below-the-Mason-Dixon-Line publication I was leafing through while sitting in a lobby NOT on my phone (full disclosure: that’s because I had inadvertently left in the car — oh the horror!). But — and forgive me here for such an obnoxious blanket statement — many Southerners appreciate the finer points of entertaining, and the article made it clear that playing a video from YouTube while the Shrimp and Grits are being served is not considered a finer point.
So I am dedicating myself to some easy weight loss goals this year. I am limiting the times I am tethered to technology. After all, I wrote the book (for real) on The Fine Art of Small Talk. I am spending more time listening and less time scrolling because face-to-face time is more fulfilling than any face-to-screen time. If you look down too long, you’re likely to miss out on the good things – like friends and family and colleagues. And the curb. And cookies. And champagne. And maybe another cookie.
Are you attempting a tech diet? Tell me about it. And cheers to a happy, healthy 2015.
Posted on Friday, January 9th, 2015
Of all the crazy things I’ve been asked about regarding The Fine Art of Small Talk (“Dear Debra, I know my boyfriend is going to propose but I don’t want to marry him” — ohhhhh.), it’s the everyday situations that can cause the most jitters.
We are in the thick of the holiday season, which means lots of parties, dinners, gift exchanges, cocktail events, company soirees and neighborhood gatherings. Here’s a short and sweet cheat sheet to get you through some of the stickiest situations.
There are some hard and fast rules:
• Arrive with three topics to talk about; think of these as your safety net should you need them.
• Always be polite.
• Always be gracious.
• Always smile.
• Remember that you are likely harder on yourself than necessary.
• Remember that a lot of people get nervous, a lot of people are shy, a lot of people are uncomfortable — and those people are dealing with their own anxieties so they are not paying attention to yours.
• Alcohol or 22 cream puffs will not make the situation better. Ever.
• Steer away from foul language and sexual innuendos or starting any sentence with ‘I heard this joke that is SO funny. You are going to laugh SO hard. Now let me see if I remember it…’
• If you have that little voice that says ‘maybe I shouldn’t say this,’ listen to that voice. And listen good.
• It is not your responsibility to babysit other adults; but it is your responsibility to be a good guest or a good host by introducing yourself and participating in conversation.
• If someone, including you, thinks you’ve had too much to drink you probably have.
• You don’t have to answer every question — your weight, your income and your relationship can be off limits if you wish them to be.
If You’ve Met Someone Before But Have Forgotten Their Name — Again.
It’s so good to see you again. Forgive me; I’ve temporarily forgotten your name. Will you remind me?
If You’ve Met Someone 20 Times Before But Have Forgotten Their Name – Again.
Discreetly ask a friend to remind you and if that doesn’t work: It’s so good to see you again. Forgive me; I’ve temporarily forgotten your name. Will you be kind enough to remind me?
If You’ve Been Given A Gift That You Hate:
Thank you for thinking of me.
If You’ve Been Given A Gift But Didn’t Give One to the Giver:
Thank you for thinking of me.
If You Were Expecting A Year-End Bonus and Received a Jelly Of The Month Membership:
Thank you for thinking of me.
If You Are Hosting A Dinner And Guests Are More Than An Hour Late:
Make sure nobody is stranded on the highway and then encourage your guests to begin dining. It appears John and Jane are running a bit late; let’s begin and they will join us when they arrive.
When John and Jane Do Finally Arrive:
We’re so glad you’re here! Let me take your coat and get you settled; we started dinner; please sit down and allow me to get you a plate.
When You Are Serving Alcohol But You Know a Particular Guest Doesn’t Drink:
May I offer you something to drink?
When Someone At Your Event Has Had Too Much To Drink And Is Being Obnoxious:
Wow — it’s getting late! Thank you for joining us. Let me get your coat.
When Someone At Your Event Has Had Too Much To Drink And Drove To The Party:
Wow — it’s getting late! I hired Uber for tonight’s party; your driver is outside. Let me get your coat and walk you out.
When Someone At Your Party Has Food Allergies or Sensitivities That You Were Not Aware Of Prior To Arrival:
My apologies for not being aware; the salad and dessert are both (fill in the blank: gluten-free, dairy-free, nut-free) but the main coarse is not. May I offer you something else, such as a piece of chicken?
When Someone At Your Party Has Food Allergies or Sensitivities And Brought Their Own Food:
Thank you! Let me plate this for you and then we can sit down!
When Someone At Your Party Shares Big News That Is Not Necessarily Good News (divorce, job loss, illness, the latest Kardashian episode): I’m so sorry to hear this news, John. How can we be of support?
When Someone At Your Party Shares Big News That Is Very Good News:
What wonderful news, John! May I offer a toast to celebrate (make a heartfelt toast.)?
When Someone At Your Party Is Intent On Talking About Things You Do Not Wish to Discuss (politics, religion, money, the Kardashians):
Gosh, I don’t think we have enough wine in the house to tackle this issue tonight! Speaking of wine, I was thinking back to the best gift I ever gave and it was the trip to Napa I surprised Steve with in 2008. What was a favorite gift you gave or received?
When You Are Stuck In A Conversation That You Want to End:
It was great catching up with you. Excuse me, I see Jane just walked in and I must say hello.
You’ve Insulted Someone By Mistake:
Forgive me! I did not mean to hurt you in any way (change the subject quickly).
You Are Tired and Want Everyone to Leave:
This was such a fun night (stand up, begin clearing dishes, do not open more wine.) – thank you all for being here.
Whatever situation you are in, remember that being kind and generous usually solves most problems. If that doesn’t work, remember it will all be over soon.
Follow Debra Fine on Twitter: www.twitter.com/DebraFine
Posted on Tuesday, March 25th, 2014
Everything in life is really sales, isn’t it? Even if you aren’t technically selling something, you are selling something. You are selling a product, your services, yourself.
You’re questioning my logic right now, I can feel it, but think about it for a moment. The ads on television, social media, the radio and the newspaper are there for a reason — to get you to buy whatever it is they’ve got. It could be a ticket to a game, a trip to a restaurant, a better car, a new cable company, a leaner physique, shinier hair, a different credit card carrier or airline of choice. Sales and more sales. All of it.
But even a first date is really a sales pitch. As is persuading a toddler to eat carrots, a teenager to put down the phone, an employee to finish a report and a husband to stop FOR THE LOVE OF GOD telling that same, long story that you have heard a thousand times. Life is really one gigantic sales pitch. Sigh.
So how do you get your customers to buy that car, that facelift, that training seminar? How do you get the three-year-old to power through a plate of vegetables and Miss Right to say “yes!” to whatever you happen to be suggesting (which is really none of my business but I am rooting for you anyway)? By building a relationship, of course.
Relationship-building in business is nothing new. After all, it’s why Coca-Cola is and always will be Coca-Cola. They’ve managed to appeal to the masses while making us each feel special. They’ve inserted themselves into American history and sold us on nostalgia and patriotism and even Santa Claus. It’s quite a feat. But what Coca-Cola, like Walt Disney or Steve Jobs or that first guy that was selling OxyClean understands — granted, on a different level than us — is that you must know who your customers are and what they need. Or want. Or think they need. Or think they want. Follow me?
I know that there is an incredible amount of information out there on customer care, and trying to synthesize it all here would be impossible. Still, there are simple strategies that anyone, even the non-Steve-Jobs of us, can adopt. Here are my favorites:
It’s harder than it seems. There are a lot of not normal people out there, and we’ve all met them. The slick sales guy selling snake oil still exists, he’s just morphed into a telemarketer or a multi-level marketing guru. The best way to earn your customers’ goodwill is to present yourself as a humble, respectful individual. I don’t mean present yourself as that person, actually be that person. By being human and politely inquisitive, you put customers and clients at ease; and as the saying goes, “people buy from people they like.”
What makes sense to you does not always make sense to someone else. You, after all, are an expert in your field. If your customer were an expert in your field, he or she would not be a (potential) customer, he would be a colleague or a competitor, or even your boss! Explain information from the customer point of view and watch for that look of understanding before plowing ahead. If you notice signs of confusion or something that resembles a stroke, slow down and ask if there is a need for clarification. This is not the time to show off, using all the acronyms and jargon and technical terms. Can’t stop yourself? Go back to the Be Normal step and review.
Asking a potential customer a good question can offer a great amount of feedback. Do your research prior to meeting with a new customer, and learn as much as you can about them and their business. You are wasting their time (and yours) if you don’t take this crucial step. Plus, it provides a great opportunity for small talk, of which I am a fan, as you know. Open ended questions, such as “How can I help?” sound almost too simple, but they work. Once you have a rapport going, provide customers with specific information on what your product or service does, but emphasize how it can help THEM, instead of simply listing all the bells and whistles: Will your services increase productivity or revenue? Are you a more-reliable, cost-effective resource? The more you understand a customer’s particular goals, the more likely you are to provide them with a solution to their problem, instead of just a quick fix.
Customer care is a huge topic, but the steps to success are really quite simple. Be forthright and honest. Tell them the truth in an attractive way, without exaggerating. If your product or service is the right fit, and if you approach your customers on their level and keep their goals in mind, you are on your way to building a relationship with a client. That’s almost as good as a trip to Disney.
Posted on Wednesday, February 26th, 2014
Not that this is groundbreaking information, but bad news is usually the opposite of good because it’s bad; bad for the recipient, yes, but also pretty awful for the person delivering the news. You might know him, he’s the same guy you want to shoot in the phrase, ‘Don’t shoot the messenger’. We’re all familiar.
I’m assuming here, but we’ve all probably been on both the giving and receiving end of bad news. I have had way too many experiences delivering and receiving bad news and in all three major categories: work, personal, and medical. I’m an overachiever.
I have to say, didn’t love the process, didn’t love the topic, didn’t love being the messenger, and didn’t love being the messengee (for today only, it’s a word). So — now that we’ve got that out of the way, we can at least attempt to make the process more painless — especially if you are tasked with delivering less-than-happy news.
Being the bearer of bad news falls in the category of ‘things I’d rather not do’ — along with cleaning bathrooms, fighting off a bear, or installing new software. In all these cases, it’s best to be smart about it. And quick. Especially in the case of the bathroom. And the bear.
Here are some things to keep in mind when you have to share the not-so-great with the not-so-prepared in a business setting. These tips can work in personal happenings as well, with a little editing; for example, if you are attempting to fire your teenager. I’m kidding, sadly, but one can dream. I digress – here we go:
Honesty Really is the Best Policy
When delivering unpleasant news, be honest. The person on the other side is already dealing with heightened emotions, and he or she will smell a lie. Be truthful about the situation, and give the other individual a clear understanding of circumstances.
The Early Bird Is Not the Worm
It’s tempting to sit on bad news in hopes of it just disappearing before our eyes — like youth or a pan of brownies. Resist the wait-and-wonder scenario. Even if something is top secret, (a layoff for example), chances are the news is already leaking out and polluting the water. By sharing information first, you position yourself as an empathetic and straightforward equal, which is much nicer than the alternative (read: weasel).
Repeat, Repeat, Repeat
Whatever you say can and will be held against you in the court of colleagues. Make sure you are sharing the same information with your employees, because word travels fast. Fight the temptation to tweak the information based on the person you are dealing with at the moment; and don’t for a moment think that your individual conversations will stay private (remember Monica Lewinsky?). If you are having 12 layoff meetings in the course of two days, the other 11 are talking or texting or emailing about what went down in your office. By keeping the information identical, truthful, and succinct, you have a greater chance of keeping the chaos at bay and not causing more trauma for your employees AND yourself.
Speak to each and every individual as you would like to be spoken to and do it face-to-face. We’ve heard the horror stories of colleagues being fired over conference callsand via email. Some employees found out they were fired when their names were no longer in the company directory. Ouch. Speak directly to your colleague, allow them to ask questions and absorb the information. Bottom line, follow the golden rule.
Offer A Solution
If your organization offers career or personal counseling, share that information immediately, thus acknowledging that the situation is difficult. Individuals in a tough spot are reeling emotionally and their mind is already fast-forwarding to the future days, weeks and even years ahead. Thoughts of retirement, reputation, and rebounding are crashing around in their head — as it would be for anyone in the same position. By sharing a few ideas that may be of help to them, you are conceding that nobody would be able to bounce back without a bit of support — and they don’t have to either.
By being kind, empathetic, honest and straightforward, you can at least know that you made a tough situation a bit easier than it could have been. Learning how to be the messenger who doesn’t get shot is one of those skills that we wish we never needed, but do.
Follow Debra Fine on Twitter: www.twitter.com/DebraFine
Posted on Tuesday, February 25th, 2014
I don’t know if you heard, but the Denver Broncos lost the Super Bowl. I know, I know, I was shocked too; but at least I got to be shocked in person, because I was actually at the Super Bowl this year. You know that famous painting by Edvard Munch titled, appropriately, The Scream? Now you’ve got the visual of Debra Fine at the game, except I have way more hair and I was wearing way more orange.
I would like to say I handled the loss with grace and aplomb, but I was — you know — disappointed. All Broncos fans were disappointed. We (and, yes, I speak for every single Broncos fan here) never even considered a loss. No one told us. I considered blaming the loss on Joe Namath’s coat, but that seems immature. What did that coatever do to me?
I was with my husband and our children and, as usual, I was, impressed with the good sportsman like conduct we all managed to embody during what some (some = me) have called a bloodbath. You already know my view on booing; but let’s face it — losing is just not as much fun as winning.
So here I am, licking my wounds from the Super Bowl loss while already engrossed in the Olympic games and I am asking myself what, exactly, makes a good loser?
And no matter who you are and what you say, we have all been on the losing side of life. Perhaps you were not given a deserved promotion, asked to the prom by the one guy you actually wanted to go with instead of that Mr. Creepers from chem who asked you two years in a row, chosen for the schoolyard kickball team or voted asAmerica’s Next Top Model (I can’t answer to the last one, but the others, well, let’s just say I get it and leave it at that). How do you overcome the sting of losing? The bigger question — how do you overcome the loss and become a gracious loser?
Earlier this month
I watched the women snowboarders battle it out on the slopes of Sochi and my heart swelled with the obvious rapport between the competitors. Not only were they all engaged in each other’s attempts, they were hugging and high-fiving at the beginning and the end of each run. Even while standing at the bottom of the hill, realizing that the gold had just gone to American Jamie Anderson, Enni Rukajani of Finland and Jenny Jones of Great Britain, now taking home the silver and the bronze respectively, were congratulating Anderson — in a big way. Hugs, smiles, kisses and words of praise. When Sarka Pancochova managed to make her way down the mountain unattended after a major spill that resulted in a cracked helmet and what I can only assume what will be a screaming headache (and hopefully not more), the spectators and competitors alike were rooting her on. Everything was how it should be — kind, gracious and authentic.
It’s hard to know what to say and how to say it when you are in the tornado that comes with loss. Emotions are whirling, reality is setting in and your mind, body and soul are trying to comprehend what just happened.
I’ve had several people approach me over the years about this topic. And, like most parents, I’ve had to patch up the broken spirits of my children when things didn’t turn out the way they had hoped. So we all have experience in losing; but some of us need practice on how to handle it.
Here’s the good news: you are allowed to be totally and utterly disappointed at a loss. That’s normal. If you didn’t feel the pangs that come with defeat, you would not be human which would make you a robot or — worse — dead. So accept the fact that every single person has experienced loss and every single person, except maybe Ghandi, felt upset by that loss. You are free to go home and eat half a sheet cake, or rip out that ugly fireplace or make fun of Joe Namath’s coat, but in the meantime, you get to take this opportunity to congratulate someone else for his or her good fortune. Rule number one when it comes to being a good loser is to keep all negative comments out of the mix and be the first one to approach the winner. Do not hide out in the corner (eating sheet cake or mocking Joe Namath!), square your shoulders, take a breath and walk up to the winner with purpose and pride.
Sound impossible? It’s not. And like someone somewhere said sometime, you can do anything for a minute. Here’s how:
You and a colleague were up for the same promotion and it was just announced that your colleague was awarded the job:
What to say: “Pete! Wow! Congratulations on the promotion.”
What to do: Smile, shake Pete’s hand and excuse yourself. You don’t need to be a hero and soak in Pete’s success; you just need to be gracious and polite. You can go now. Go on. Go get that sheet cake. Skedaddle.
You are sitting at a very expensive fundraising dinner because you are a finalist in a philanthropic award pool; and your name is not called:
What to say: “Beth — congratulations on the win. Your efforts this year have been amazing and it was an honor to be nominated along with you.”
What to do: Send Beth a note later in the week. Send the award committee/event host a note later in the week. Send yourself some flowers.
You are sitting with a bunch of other parents at the Homecoming game when they announce the queen and instead of your daughter, it is that spray-tanned obnoxious cheerleader who, by the way, had lice in the fourth grade.
What to say: “Congratulations, Ann. Jessica must be thrilled.”
What to do: Go find your daughter, hug her, tell her that high school is almost over, and remind her that she never had lice.
Your son does not make the baseball team:
What to say: “I’m sorry, buddy. How are you feeling? I’m proud of you for going out for the team and trying your best.”
What to do: Hug him, tell him that grade school is almost over and soon he’ll be in high school where the homecoming queen won’t give him the time of day and then have a job with the possibility of a promotion and then he will do a lot for the community and will be up for a non-profit award that he won’t get and this loss will just be one of many!! Ok — delete everything after “hug him.” Add in a Dairy Queen run. Call it a day.
In 99 percent of losing scenarios, this recipe stays the same: Be first on the scene, offer a quick but sincere congratulations along with a handshake or hug when appropriate, and move on. To lose is inevitable, but to be a good loser is achievable. So go out there and be the best good loser you can be — gold medal or not — you’ll be happy you did.
Posted on Monday, January 13th, 2014
Most of us are out there in there in the world giving it our all. Looking good, working hard, being a true friend, an attentive parent, a dedicated employee and a contributing member to society takes a lot time and energy. I mean, just drying my hair takes a solid 43 minutes. It’s not easy being me, you know? And wouldn’t it be nice if just once, someone noticed?
Yet when someone DOES notice, and they do, many of us either freeze up or immediately disregard the kind words coming at us. Why?
According to Robin Abrahams, columnist for the Boston Globe, people feel that when they acknowledge a compliment, they are validating it and, thus, patting themselves on the back. “Gosh, yes, drying my hair DOES take in inordinate amount of time and upper body strength!” seems, oh I don’t know, ridiculous.
But, according to Abrahams, deflecting a compliment is not modest or unpretentious; it’s actually a bit rude. After all, someone has taken the time to not only notice you and your efforts, but has gone a step further and actually acknowledged it. That’s nice, right?
You’d think hearing nice things about yourself would be easy, but in fact negativity weighs heavy. Aaron Ben-Zeev, a Ph.D quoted in Psychology Today, simplifies it: “To sum up, negative emotions are more noticeable than positive ones since attending to negative events is more important for our survival than attending to positive events.”
Is that why accepting a compliment is tough, because we are built with the fight or flight mechanism that saves us from something scary and, therefore, we are gravitate toward something negative versus positive? To put it simply: Is running from a bear easier than accepting a heartfelt compliment?
Let’s hope not. I’ve never run from a bear, but that sounds sort of hard.
Here’s the good news: I do know the secret to accepting a compliment. Are you ready? Here it comes:
Say “Thank you.”
Yep, that’s it. Just say thank you. Resist the urge to discount yourself and, in doing so, the complimenter (let’s pretend that’s a real word just for today, okay?). Resist the “Oh, this old head of hair?! I’ve had it forever! It’s nothing, really,” comeback and be a gracious complimentee (let’s pretend that’s another word, just for today).
Here are some responses to get your through what should be a great small talk exchange but could, in fact, cause you to panic as if you are, well, running from a bear. Remember, you can accept a compliment and still gently lead the conversation in another direction which is the sign of the true small talk pro that you are — here’s how:
Is that a new car? I like the color!
Thank you! I’ve never had a red car before and I am enjoying it.
I loved your speech.
Thank you. I am so glad you liked it.
Dinner was delicious.
Thank you. My sister made it years ago and it’s become a family favorite. What’s your go-to recipe?
Your children are so polite.
Thank you. That’s a really lovely thing to say.
Your new book is great!
Thank you; hearing that makes the hard work worth it. What else are you reading these days?
I can tell you worked hard on that report.
Thank you. It’s nice of you to notice.
Your hair looks fabulous.
Thank you. Now, check out my arms!
Posted on Wednesday, December 18th, 2013
So by now you know that I recently spent a few days and nights gallivanting around DC with elected officials.
Wait. That sounds bad, doesn’t it? Gallivant may be the wrong word as I am not — and will never be — Rielle Hunter.
But I did spend time at The White House and at Vice President Joe Biden’s private residence and it was and still is unforgettable. Being in the small talk business is a benefit for me because I usually don’t have the panic that others often experience when walking into an unfamiliar room with unfamiliar faces and starting a conversation. For those of you who suffer — and I know many of you do — I remember your pain. Last week’s blog included four simple steps to starting a conversation with a stranger; a little pre-holiday gift to keep you merry and bright. But what happens if you don’t find a singleton in the room? What if everyone is already grouped together and chatting merrily while you are standing alone, feeling foolish?
Breaking in is hard to do, especially when it comes to conversation. You don’t want to continue to stick out like the Lone Ranger without Tonto. You also don’t want to start lurking around like…well…I was going to say Rielle Hunter but that would be in poor taste. So, let’s just say you don’t want to start lurking around.
Not to fret my fellow small-talkers! There are simple, non-lurky ways to find your way into a group conversation. Here’s how:
Fake a seizure.
Kidding — here’s how to do it:
If there is someone specific in the room that you have been hoping to meet and he is engaged in a conversation with another person, wait patiently and then approach the OTHER person, your target’s conversation partner. Politely, ask for the other person’s permission to interrupt:
Hi, I’m Debra Fine. Excuse me for intruding, but I’ve been trying to connect with Bob for weeks. Would you mind if interrupted you both for just a moment?
Most people are gracious enough to agree.
The other option is to tap the shoulder of your intended conversation cohort and state your wishes:
Hi, I am Debra Fine. Excuse me for intruding, but I promised myself to connect with you, Bob, before the evening ends. Please look for me when you have a free moment.
At this point you will either be invited to join the conversation or Bob’s partner will excuse himself and move on (he may have been ready for greener pastures anyway, so double kudos). If neither of these things happens, Bob will know you made an effort and will likely seek you out later.
Attempting to break into a larger group? Try this:
Stand slightly away from the group, but show interest in the speaker while waiting for the group to acknowledge you. They will likely physically shift a bit to allow you into the inner circle.
Ease your way into the conversation by acknowledging that you have been listening. You can do this by nodding your head, smiling, or chuckling at a funny quip that’s been shared.
Look for visual cues that some or all of the group has warmed to you. At that point, you know you’ve been officially welcomed to use your small talk skills like the pro you are. No Rielle Hunter or fake seizures necessary.
Posted on Tuesday, December 10th, 2013
I’m going to a cocktail party at The White House next week. Yes, Debra Fine will be drinking champagne at The White House. Do I sound like I am bragging? I’m not. Well, maybe a smidge. But I am, in a word, thrilled. I have a feeling that Mrs. Obama and I will become lifelong friends and share workout tips, but I digress.
Back to business. While I am elated to be attending two VIP cocktail receptions in the nation’s capital (yes, I will also be at a little soiree with Vice President Joe Biden but didn’t want to rub it in), I know that the holiday cocktail party, whether at the White House or at your neighbor’s house, can cause distress for many of you. How do I know? From you! You’ve told me on Facebook, in Q&A sessions following a keynote speech, in personal emails, even in line at the grocery store! Not to fret, fellow small-talkers, navigating a cocktail reception is not as tough as you think.
Like everything else, there is a beginning, middle, and end. It makes sense to start with the beginning, and get to the middle and end of a good cocktail party conversation in parts two and three of this series, respectively.
Let’s assume that you’ve got your icebreakers and three or four topics in mind for when a conversation starts happening. You’ve practiced your most winning smile in the privacy of your bathroom mirror, you don’t have any food in your teeth and you still remember your own name. All good things. So you arrive at an event where you know nobody and you wait for someone to approach you, right?
No, no, no. Remember, the holidays are all about giving — so give yourself and someone else the gift of conversation. When you enter a room, look around for others that are standing on their own. You can usually find these folks hovering around the buffet or obsessively checking their phone or standing much too close to a potted plant. These people are nervous and feeling awkward and, because of that, will be your very best listeners because you, savvy small talker that you are, are about to relieve them from feeling completely panicked and self-conscious. Go you.
Be the first to make eye contact and smile at a stranger. And if they don’t smile back, I will send you a paperweight from the president’s desk. Don’t ask me how I got it.
Once you’ve established eye contact, introduce yourself and offer a handshake.
Hello, I’m Debra Fine.
If the other person speaks your language, and you don’t receive a handshake and a name in return, I will send you a paperweight from Mrs. Obama’s desk (I believe she uses hers for bicep curls because wow, those arms, but I digress — again.).
Once you receive a name and a handshake, use the other person’s name and one of your icebreakers to get the conversation going. I find a statement/question combination to be the best bet:
It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ken. This is my first visit to the White House inner sanctum and it’s more than I imagined! What’s your history with visiting the White House?
Notice I did not pose a yes or no question, because then Ken and I might hit a roadblock. Instead Ken has the chance to either tell me he has never been to the White House, and then we can talk about being newbies to the whole experience; or Ken can tell me he has attended several functions, and then I can ask him about some of the highlights; or Ken can tell me he took his children on the standard White House tour and now I have some insight that Ken is a father and I can take the conversation in that direction. No matter what Ken’s response, the conversational path is lit for me. Let’s pretend that Ken is new, like me:
Isn’t this exciting, Ken? What surprises you most about being here?
The statement/question pattern is effective for starting and continuing conversation, especially if you keep the question open-ended (not a yes/no question). Now Ken and I are on our way to a meaningful exchange and Ken and I are not both standing alone in the middle of what might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be wined and dined at the White House.
See? It’s as easy as that.
At the end of the day, there are really four short steps to starting a conversation: • Find an approachable person • Make eye contact • Smile • Offer your name to them and use their name in conversation
Giving the gift of conversation is worthwhile to everyone. True success comes from taking the first step and saying hello. The topic is not nearly as important as the effort. So exercise your conversational muscle and do some heavy lifting when it comes to making small talk, because connecting with another person is even more important than sporting rock-hard biceps. I promise.
Posted on Wednesday, November 27th, 2013
Two topics seem to dominate the morning shows during Thanksgiving week: what is the most fattening thing on the table and how to create the most decadent holiday menu. Is it just me, or does it seem counterproductive to dish on the heart-attack-inducing fat and calories in sausage stuffing while also talking about how to make the very best of said stuffing?
No matter, though, because you’ve got way bigger problems than creating the most succulent turkey while subsequently keeping the button on your pants from popping off and dinging someone in the neck. You actually have to sit at a table and converse with people. I know, I know — you almost forgot that part, didn’t you? Most people do. Everyone is so caught up in ironing napkins and fretting over burned pie crusts that by the time the actual celebration hits, there is a table full of guests ready to eat, drink and be conversational and then — whoops — conversation turns to confrontation. It’s like magic. Dark, spooky magic.
As you might imagine my years of small talking across the country have allowed me to hear loads of stories about awkward, painful, or downright rude comments made at the Thanksgiving table. Thanksgiving is a time to be grateful for the good things in life. And that includes the people around your table. Yes, all of them. YES, even Uncle Joe.
So — I am sharing with you my some of the most heinous conversation killers so you can both avoid saying them and dodge them if they come your way.
Debra Fine’s Top Ten Thanksgiving “Oh No, She Didn’t?!” Just Say That List:
1. “So! Any wedding plans?” or, next, “Any baby news yet?” Many of us (me included, I must admit) presume that running the dating marathon reaches the marriage finish line. No. And no again. As for the baby question, think first! What if the couple is struggling to conceive, doesn’t want to have children or is expecting but not ready to share the news? So pipe down. If someone wants you to know their intimate intentions, you will. Try this: “Catch me up on what’s happening since I last saw you two.”
2. “I heard Sarah got into Northwestern… why in the world is she going to Michigan State instead?” Maybe Sarah just loves green and white. Maybe Sarah didn’t really get into Northwestern. Maybe the economy has put a damper on attending private institutions. Maybe you should just pass the gravy. Try this: “I hear Sarah was accepted to a number of universities; what swayed her decision to go to MSU?” 3.”No, thanks. I gave up drinking after I see how it ruins families.” This is meant to deliberately point a finger, and everyone knows it. If you must address someone’s overindulgence, do it in private! Making someone feel bad about him or herself does not typically drive better behavior. It drives people to — well, I was going to say ‘drink,’ but that seems inappropriate here. Try this: “I’d love some water, thank you.”
4. “This house is so much smaller than your old one!” Um, yes, homeowners are aware of their square footage. Falling APRs and zero interest loans created a housing crisis for basically everyone, not just those strangers you read about in the newspapers. Try this: “What’s the best part of celebrating your first Thanksgiving in your new house?”
5. “Betcha wish you didn’t vote for him now!” Stop gloating and remember that we are all in this together. And karma is real. Start ridiculing your guests’ choice of candidates and I guarantee yours will turn up on the front page with a drug problem. Or a mistress. Or a mistress with a drug problem. You get the picture… and it’s an ugly one. Try this: “Who wants potatoes?”
6. “How much pie have you had?” or “Why aren’t you eating anything?” Leave everyone alone and let others eat or not eat; just worry about yourself and what you are putting in your own mouth which, at this point, seems to be your foot. Just because you slaved over the pumpkin pie or prepared three types of jello does not mean everyone is required to indulge. I mean, I would eat the three types of jello but …. Try this: “Everything is delicious.”
7. “I just can’t imagine being a stay-at-home mother — what do you do all day?” Oh, no no no — this is one of the lowest blows because it typically pits woman against woman and that is a crime! We must stick together, whether we are running a Fortune 500 company or running another load of laundry. Your job as a guest is to show genuine interest in your conversation partner; ask questions that elicit a thoughtful and honest response. Try this: “What surprised you about becoming a stay-at-home mother?” or “What part of the day do you love?” or “Walk me through a typical day at your house/office?”
8. “Nice shirt” (followed by an eye roll or a heavy sigh). Leave him alone. His priorities are not the same as yours. Appreciate that he is wearing a shirt. And hopefully pants. Period. Try this: “Nice shirt” (minus the eye roll and heavy sigh).
9. “Your son looks just like you and your daughter looks like she could be from a different family? Is she the milkman’s baby?” What if she IS the milkman’s baby? What if she is adopted? Personal questions that you do not know the answer to are never a good idea. I repeat — personal questions you do not know the answer to are never a good idea. These include:
“Did your son graduate?”
“How is the boyfriend?”
“Are you going to get him some braces?”
“Did she go to prom?”
“How’d she gain all that weight?”
“How’d she lose all that weight?”
“Did she find a job yet?”
Try this: “What’s the latest news on Jane?”
10. “Delicious! Did you cook this or order it?” You may be asking because you sincerely wish to know how you can create this dish yourself, but you are putting the host/hostess on the spot. Instead, compliment the dish and ask for the recipe after the meal. If it was not homemade, maybe she will confess. Or not. Try this: “Happy Thanksgiving everyone