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The Core of Rapport: Why Small Talk = Big Business



"Hi, I'm Andrew." “Hey Andrew, my name’s Joe. Nice to meet you. Is that a real sunset behind you?”


In today's world, that' how many business relationships start. At business meetings, some call this "small talk," the stuff to get out of the way before getting down to business. Some people consider exchanging pleasantries a nuisance, while others enjoy the “diversion;” but how many of us consider "small talk" crucial to business in general and to negotiations in particular?


Today I hope to persuade you to engage in small talk in a way that can make a big difference to negotiations outcomes. You will (I hope) see that good small talk can lead to better, and sometimes big business.

Recently my brother invited me to a dinner whose guest of honor was the Attorney General (AG) for the State of Utah, Sean Reyes. The AG was in town for meetings related to fighting human trafficking. I Googled him and found out he had gone to law school at my alma mater, UC Berkeley. Having just flown back from Tokyo and having packed a Cal polo shirt, I decided to wear it to the dinner, thinking it might, by chance, spark a conversation. Bingo! The first words out of AG Reyes' mouth were, "Go Bears!" We wound up enjoying great conversations over dinner, a lot of laughs, as we found several other "common ground" topics among the three of us, including: funny times in Chicago, multiple sports interests, Rockwell watches (my brother shared a funny story about how he “won” his), travel, and more. Time flew by and I have made a new friend.


Two days later, that same brother was speaking with a potential landlord, the owner of a beautiful, small apartment complex on the ocean. In the span of less than three minutes on the phone, Wynn found a common connection with the landlord's close friend, who happens to also be an NFL agent. Because of this instant connection during the "small talk" phase of the call, Wynn was offered a better apartment in the complex, one not even listed yet. His connection helped him "skip the line" of other applicants. None of that would have been possible had Wynn skipped the small talk, which comes unconsciously now to him.


The above are just two scenarios among so many where a key, if not the key, to a successful conversation, and thus, potentially successful business, starts with finding common ground. Establishing rapport. Creating shared context.


Just this morning, I was reviewing the "common ground" I share with my partner for Get a G.R.I.P. on Negotiations, Scott Maltby. We both found work at a JAL subsidiary in 1992. We were two of just a handful of MBA-holders out of 20+ foreigners working in the organization. We shared an AIESEC connection, a love of sports and rock and roll. (AIESEC, for those who don’t know, is the largest student-led organization in the world, focusing on securing international internships for students in economics and business.)


Since JAL, Scott and I have collaborated on many projects and spent countless hours in karaoke boxes. Thirty years later, we both moved to North America for our kids’ education while maintaining a deep and permanent connection to Japan. All of this is more common ground that we draw upon to create the next success.


About 8 minutes into Simon Sinek's "Start With Why" video, we learn that people want to work with others who "believe what they believe," much deeper common ground than a shared university or favorite sport. That's why I believe the best way to introduce yourself in business meetings is by sharing both what you do (one of the most common ways) and why you do it, and by asking why the person does what they do, or what got them first engaged in their work, their "origin story." It's also a good way to open up a negotiation. Get clear on why you're (t)here!


Common ground, which, when you think about it, literally means "places you and your counterpart have booth stood." These shared interests can get and keep the negotiation ball rolling. So next time you engage in small talk of such things as where you're from, where you grew up, what do you like to do, seek chances to find common interests rather than just asking and answering questions as if running down a checklist. You may end up with a better apartment, a 30-year-and-counting business partnership, or an invite to the NBA All-star game in Salt Lake City!


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