Culture Chat

And other musings on humanizing the workplace
The Antidote to Small Talk

The Antidote to Small Talk

February 2, 2017
Charlie Judy

I’ve logged some hours at cocktail parties. And of the hundreds, I recall few. Not because of the cocktails, though there were many. They just haven’t been memorable (apologies to anyone I’ve ever cocktailed with). How could they be, after all?! The din, the cliques, and the cliché’s. There’s the incessant swim upstream: the person I’m talking to is looking for someone better to talk to and/or I’m doing the same thing…and we both know it. Then there’s the impracticality of standing (for hours on end), holding your drink in one hand, a passed hors d'oeuvre in the other, and trying to shake hands along the way. It’s like a never-ending awkward exchange of gifts between incoming and outgoing FLOTUS.  And finally, the small talk. OMG, the small talk! Have you ever (really) left one cocktail party feeling invigorated by the substance of thought, exchange of ideas, and nuggets of insight you collected along the way? Really?

It’s a losing proposition for even the most extravert of schmoozers and socialites.

I’ve reached a point in my life and career where I neither have the patience nor the cognitive load to play that game any longer. So last week WorkXO and I took a right turn. Maybe you’ve heard of Thomas Jefferson, Founding Father, principle author of the Declaration of Independence, first Secretary of State, second Vice President, and third President of the United States. Not a bad resume. I figure he was a smart guy. So when I learned about the wildly popular dinners he was known to host at Monticello, I got to thinking: it might be time to get my Jefferson on.

I’m pretty sure Jefferson hated cocktail parties as much as I do because he developed the perfect antidote for them.

10 Guests. No more. Each selected for their common interests yet diverse perspectives, backbones, voice, and willingness to discourse. And rare was it for the guests to already have known one another. A private table in a private room. Linens. Candle light. Wine – not too much, but certainly not too little. Dinner served without interruption. A pre-ordained topic or theme. And two rules strictly adhered to: 1) once guests are seated, there is only one collective conversation (as a table) with only one person talking at a time, and 2) the conversation must be allowed to go where the conversation goes. Imagine the art-of-conversation in its finest form.

Deference to the one talking at that very moment, permission to explore and exploit…to challenge and debate, intellect, curiosity, vulnerability, and authenticity. Presence.

It’s sad that this, a real conversation, has become a novel concept. Especially in the professional community. So we set out to prove it doesn’t have to be so. We followed Jefferson’s antidote. We invited an OD Leader with a top state university, an HR Leader with a national professional association, an HR Leader with a highly-successful sales-enablement software provider, a Global Sales and Marketing Leader with a world-renowned performance optimization firm, an HR Leader with a burgeoning health-care technology company, an OD Leader with an entrepreneurial financial markets trading firm, an HR Leader with an innovative remedial and geotechnical construction services company, and an executive coach and adjunct professor with one of the nation’s Top 5 business schools. Neither knew each other, and they all came. We dined on the 67th Floor of the Willis Tower with the expanse of downtown Chicago in view. We followed the rules…we talked, listened, laughed and learned.

We Communed.  

The loosely laid topic was “2017 Leadership Facepalms.” We reflected on leaders who rock and those who really don’t. We bantered about the need – or lack thereof – for boundaries, territories, and guardrails. We delved into meditation, mindfulness, and the power it might bring to the workplace. We debated the role leaders play in establishing, cultivating, and preserving culture. We talked about self-directed teams and how they may challenge the traditional hierarchy of leadership. We contemplated how leaders can make it or break it based on how they deal with mistakes – theirs and those of others. We kicked around the idea that maybe we need a little more grit in leadership. We even explored what Mom might have taught us about leadership. We didn’t pontificate or prophesize; we shared colorful anecdote and first-hand experience from-the-trenches.  

Our experiment worked. It really did. So much so that we will do it again…soon. You should do it too; it’s not that hard and it’s really not that novel. I promise you’ll get more from one Jeffersonian Dinner than you’ll get from a dozen cocktail parties. There are any number of reasons it worked so well for Tommy during the emergence of our then new country; and we’re convinced those reasons are just as fitting as we now face our future of work.

Break bread, my friends.     

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(photo credit)

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