Being vulnerable is nice to talk about, but extremely difficult to actually do. Keith Ferrazzi (the author of one of my favorite books, Never Eat Alone) shares a wonderful story about the benefits of being vulnerable, despite the risk and difficulty:
Recently I attended a Conference Board meeting, an annual gathering for executives in marketing and communications. As is the custom, participants gather for a dinner the night before the event.
That night, sitting around the table were the heads of marketing for companies like Wal-Mart, Cigna, Lockheed, Eli Lilly, eBay, and Nissan. All of them were people who managed significant marketing budgets. Their importance to my business is significant. This was an occasion that called for my being at my best.
Problem was, I left my best somewhere over Pittsburgh on the flight there. The soundtrack of my life that night was the “Blues.” Hours before, I had received the final and definitive e-mail that confirmed my worst fears: I was single again. I had just experienced the end of a traumatic and emotionally draining breakup. I was in no mood to talk.
Sherry, the woman I was sitting beside, whom I had just met, had no idea I wasn’t being myself. As the conversation raged on at the dinner table, I realized I was doing all the things I tell people never to do. I was hiding behind polite, inconsequential questions about nothing in particular.
Here we were, Sherry and I, looking at each other and talking, but really saying nothing. It was clear we both couldn’t wait for the check.
At some point, I recognized how absurd I was behaving. I’ve always told people I believe that every conversation you have is an invitation to risk revealing the real you. What’s the worst that can happen? They don’t respond in kind. So what. They probably weren’t worth knowing in the first place. But if the risk pays off, well, now you’ve just turned a potentially dull exchange into something interesting or even perhaps personally insightful—and more times than not, a real relationship is formed.
It was at that point that I just came out and said what I was feeling. “You know, Sherry, I’ve got to apologize. We don’t know each other very well, but I tend to be a whole lot more fun than I’m being this evening. It’s been a tough day. I just had a board meeting where my board members put me through the wringer. More importantly, I just suffered a pretty difficult breakup and it’s still got me down.” Just like that, the rabbit was out of the hat. A risky opening, a flash of vulnerability, a moment of truth, and the dynamics of our conversation changed instantly.
Sure, she could have felt uncomfortable with such a personal admission. Instead, it put her at ease. “Oh my, that’s no problem. Trust me, I understand. Everybody goes through it. Let me tell you about my divorce.”
We became engaged in ways we hadn’t expected. Sherry’s shoulders relaxed. Her face loosened. She opened up. I felt drawn into the conversation for the first time that night. She went on to tell me about her painful divorce and all the things she had gone through in the months after it. All of a sudden, the discussion went into the emotional ramifications of breakups and how challenging they can be. For both of us, it turned out to be a cathartic moment. More than that, Sherry gave me some wonderful advice.
What happened next surprised even me. Upon hearing our conversation, several normally buttoned-up members of the group stopped their conversation and were drawn to ours. The entire table bonded over the very common trials and tribulations of marriage and relationships: men, women, gay, straight, it didn’t matter.
People who had been pensive and withdrawn were suddenly giving personal testimonies while the rest of us joined in supportive stories of our own. By evening’s end, we were laughing and talking intimately; it turned into one incredible dinner. Today, I really look forward to seeing my friends at this quarterly event. They are important people to me—yes, some of them have become customers, but more of them are real friends I feel I can count on.
The message here is that we can go through life, particularly conferences and other professional gatherings, making shallow, run-of-the-mill conversation with strangers that remain strangers. Or we can put a little of ourselves, our real selves, on the line, give people a glimpse of our humanity, and create the opportunity for a deeper connection. We have a choice.
These days, I rarely blanch at the chance to introduce topics of conversation that some consider off-limits. Spirituality, romance, politics—these are some of the issues that make life worth living.
Of course, there are always fail-safe conversation starters suitable for every business function: How did you get started in your business? What do you enjoy most about your profession? Tell me about some of the challenges of your job? But safety—whether in conversation, business, or life—generally produces “safe” (read: boring) results.
The real winners—those with astounding careers, warm relationships, and unstoppable charisma—are those people who put it all out there and don’t waste a bunch of time and energy trying to be something (or someone) they’re not. Charm is simply a matter of being yourself. Your uniqueness is your power. We are all born with innate winning traits to be a masterful small talker.
The best way to become good at small talk is not to talk small at all.
(Excerpt from Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi, Chapter 17)