Byron's Babbles

Do Not Forget The Small Talk

Posted in Educational Leadership, Global Education, Global Leadership, Leadership, Leadership Development, Small Talk by Dr. Byron L. Ernest on February 26, 2021

I have finished two great books this week that have caused me to do a great deal of thinking about how we communicate with each other and how, now on day 351 of the global pandemic, we need to be communicating with others. Pre COVID we had ample opportunities to casually chat with our colleagues. Now, much of the time we pop up on a screen and must talk to everyone, or not at all. In A Gentleman In Moscow by Amor Towles, the protagonist, The Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, exclaimed “We all have many small details about ourselves that we can put together to make a mosaic of who we are.” These small details are important to relationship building. The Count used conversation to elaborate on the smallest of details. Even in our virtual interactions we must build in time (or let it happen organically) for small talk. This does not mean asking a single question that everyone in the group must answer – that is not small talk.

Growing up we raised a lot of White Pekin Ducks. It was always interesting to me that when a group of ducks got separated from each other, once they got back together there was a great deal of chattering and quacking like they were getting caught up on all the latest news. It was amazing to watch and listen to this loud interaction. Boy would I have loved to speak White Pekin Duck. Ducks are like us, very social. In fact, they do not like to be alone and should never be raised as singles. I believe we have found how much we are like that. Therefore, I always like to get on to virtual gatherings I facilitate about 15 minutes early and will leave the room open for a short time afterward. This mimics the time that we all do small talk before and after meetings. This gives us a chance to sort through what was called “our vast catalog of casual questions” in A Gentleman In Moscow. This needs to be unstructured time to be worthwhile. Many leaders have real trouble just letting this happen naturally.

As chair of board for the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE) I have had to get comfortable with meetings starting a little late (maybe 10 minutes) because participants from all over the country are Zooming in and want to talk about the personal things we would all talk about if in the literal room together. Clearly, there is a balance to reach, but if I didn’t allow for this it would irritating to the members. We must create space for small talk.

If we use the interrogatives for conversation, we can learn so much about those we serve. Sharing a space is not always sharing an experience. Allowing space for small talk will also allow for us to, as Beverly Kaye and Sharon Jordan-Evans told us in the sixth edition of Love ‘Em Or Lose ‘Em to “Ask so you don’t have to guess.” These interactions help us to understand how to love those we serve. I love how The Count did it in A Gentleman In Moscow. He used the phrase “So tell me…” Don’t you love it when someone starts with “So tell me…” instead of “Let me tell you…”?

Finally, if you’re one that needs a little more structure, ask questions that those gathered will have an opinion about. But, don’t forget, you may not have the same opinion. This is okay and fun. Let’s not forget just how important small talk is to really knowing those we are associated with.