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I’m a lawyer, I don’t do small talk…

conversationRecently I attended an event where I found myself seated with two other lawyers, who, for all their conversational abilities, might as well have been absent. Had I not been carrying the entire weight of the conversation, we would have sat in near-total silence for nearly a half-hour. (No surprise then that the two lawyers in question have recently left private practice and gone into academic research.)

The truth is that good conversational skills are critical for any lawyer working with clients, but this should be only the beginning. The ability to really engage people can take your career to unparalleled heights—in terms of increasing your client business, growing your network, and attracting client work. (While, at the other extreme, lack of conversational skills can have a hugely detrimental impact. In short, unless you secretly feel that you are meant to excel in academic research, read on…).

So, here’s a quick guide to using your skills to make the right impression… and, just as importantly, to move the exchange to where you want it to go.

The easiest approach is to ask questions (a vastly underused technique by lawyers, (who tend to think they should have all the answers, or, if they don’t, at least look as though they do). In conversational situations, it’s actually better to be uninformed and inquisitive, as this allows you to start and refresh the conversation through questions about the other person. For example, what he or she thinks about some issue, or has a problem with, and so on. The sad truth is that most people much prefer to talk about themselves (rather than hear about you), and when you facilitate this, you become, almost automatically, an exceptional conversationalist.

Start by asking simple, non-threatening questions. (You can even prepare a few.) As you get to know the person better you can follow up on their answers and ask more searching and revealing questions.

Listen

Great conversationalists are great listeners, (which follows on naturally from asking questions. People enjoy the attention when they respond—well, let’s be honest, don’t you? Why else are surveys so acceptable?) Also, when you listen you learn (about the other person, their needs, and how you might contribute)… whereas, when speaking you are in no way the wiser.

In fact, when you’re speaking,you’re probably focused on yourself (and might even think you’re impressing others with your credentials, incredible back-story, etc.) but frankly, most people prefer to talk about themselves, and odd as it might seem, you are likely to impress your conversational partners far more when you encourage them to do so. Make a conscious effort to be interested in the other person and focus on what they say. Show that you are listening by asking questions that further support and develop their answers; “What do you mean exactly?”, “What happened next?”, “How did you feel about that?”

Give Compliments

Pay compliments whenever you sincerely can. If the person to whom you’re speaking lets slip some achievement, then congratulate them—show that you are genuinely impressed by it (rather than trying to demonstrate your own achievements, or even worse, trying to go “one better”). Making the other person feel appreciated and important, ironically, increases their admiration of you (odd, but true!)

Keep up to date on topical issues: do the small talk

Sometimes conversations inevitably finish. When this happens, it’s important to be able to fill the void with small talk. I know that some lawyers so despise this part of conversation that it can deter them from the entire event in the first place. But small talk can actually be pretty painless if you come prepared. Be ready with issues, ideas, or current topics in the news that other people might be interested in. (In fact, don’t leave home without a few topics up your sleeve. That way, when needed, you can slip them in without missing a beat. And remembering our previous rule, the best way to do this is by asking a question…”Did you read about…?”) Similarly, staying abreast of key happenings keeps you on target if other people bring them up. (Again, “And what did you think about it?” rather than dispensing your innate wisdom, however acute!)

Reveal something about yourself

So far I’ve focused on keeping the spotlight on the other person. However, to make a real connection, the conversation can’t be one-sided; the other person needs information about you to relate to, or to help form an impression of you. In fact, by sharing little or nothing of yourself you are instantly limiting your means of connection, despite the fact that your goal must be for the other person to identify with you, perceive commonality, and (ideally) experience an emotional affinity.

What you choose to disclose, and how you choose to disclose it, are key to achieving your objectives. There are some factors that can clue you in as to what is appropriate. If you follow the lead of your conversation partner and do your best to match his or her preferred level of disclosure, you’re probably in the right ballpark.

In essence, your conversation should mirror a close tennis match: forehand to forehand, back and forth!

Move the conversation where you want it to go

As you question, listen, and reveal yourself, observe how the other person is reacting. Is he or she engaged, interested…even ready for a change of topic? Can you spot an opening to move up from sport or vacations to something rather more business focused? If so, take the risk; again—you guessed it—with a question. (After all, this is probably your joint objective in paving the way with small talk . . .)

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