Recently, I’ve become crystal clear as to why I am on this planet. I am here to “gently eradicate small talk.” Nearly everyone hates it, it rarely helps us build trust, and—at work—it costs organizations a lot of money!

Below is a transcript from my original TEDx talk on the idea of building trust and connection through taking positive social risks. I’m resharing it now, 5 years later because it highlights what I believe to be one of the most powerful methods to shift from “small talk” to conversations that matter: empathetic curiosity.

You can view the find the full TEDx video, other great icebreaker ideas that build trust (and don’t suck), and get more ideas on how to gently eradicate small talk right here as well.

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People matter.

And interacting with those people positively, genuinely, and creatively should be normal and not abnormal.

And I believe the way to transform that lofty, abstract philosophy into a concrete reality is to challenge ourselves and other people to take positive social risks.

I want to share a story that I feel like helps break down what it means to take a positive social risk and gives you a picture of that transformation. But to organize some of the chaos that goes on up in my head, I want to divide the space into a couple of sections.

First chunk [inside a hula hoop I brought on stage], we are going to call our interpersonal comfort zone. So this is where we are comfortable. The outcomes of our social interactions are certain. Life is both predictable and familiar in this space.

Over here is a pile of boxes [that I also brought on stage] that we are going to let represent our own anxious bump. The further we get from our comfort zone and the closer we get to our anxious bump, life becomes more uncertain, more unpredictable, more unfamiliar, and more uncomfortable.

And all of those “un” words pile up to form a barrier that separates and isolates us from other people.

Now, rewind to a few weeks ago.

I’m hopping on a bus on my way to Boston to pick up my grandma from the airport. And as the bus starts moving, I am struck by how silent this crowded bus is. And I’m thinking to myself, “if there is any place to test whether a positive social risk can truly transform the way that we experience the world, this cold quiet bus is the place.” So, I start looking around for a person who I can connect with genuinely, and the more that I look around, the closer that I get to stepping outside my comfort zone, until my heart rate is about 180 beats a minute. And I looked down at the person next to me, and I say “hey there, I’m curious, what’s the ‘Jason Project’ on your hat all about?”

And he looks up confused, and then his face lights up and he starts giving me all this information about what the Jason Project is, how he worked with Robert Ballard, the dude who discovered the Titanic, and all this passion starts flinging out. In that moment I realized that all the unpredictability and the uncertainty and the discomfort and anxiety that I had felt was gone. And I was certain that that conversation With Henry rocked!

But the skeptic in me was saying “does every positive social risk that I take really end in this miraculous, great conversation with strangers name Henry on grim quiet bus rides?”

Nope.

Have I said some things to people that have ended in mildly awkward situations?

Yep.

Just the other day I was walking down the street with a friend, and I saw a girl across the street wearing the same color lime green jacket as I was. So with the wholly positive intention of connecting with another human being, I looked at her and said, “hey, love the lime green jacket. It is a great color on us.“  And I got shut down. Hard. I got shut down hard with an ::ugh:: and a beautifully arched eye roll.

That was a failed positive social risk.

But as I was thinking about what actually happened, I had an “aha” moment. What actually happened—besides the dent to my ego that was magnified by the fact that she was a 4th grader— nothing happened.

Nothing happened.

She kept walking and I kept walking and our days went on.

And that is when I realized that taking a positive social risk is not about whether you fail or succeed.

Taking a positive social risk is not about whether you fail or succeed.

Taking a positive social risk is about stretching yourself outside of your comfort zone, over your own anxious bump, wherever that might be, so that on the other side you can begin to see people as people with depth and stories, fears, feelings, and aspirations. And not as objects that move around, get in your way, or vehicles that serve your purposes.

And when you begin to see people as real people, the barrier that separates and isolates us from other people begins to disappear. So I am standing up here blabbing on about Stretching yourself interpersonally and taking positive social risks and disrupting your pattern of social interaction. And so I want to follow my own darn advice. The pattern of the interaction that we are having right now on stage is that I get up and say some words.

And then you clap.

I want to shatter that pattern right now.

I want absolutely none of you to clap, but I invite all of you to stand with me.

And in a moment when I say the word “connect,” I want you to turn to a person next to you that you do not know and have never met.

Look into their eyes, introduce yourself, and share a piece of who you are.

Share what you are most passionate about in life right now.

Listen deeply to each other.

And again, let your applause be the sound of your voices connecting in here. And out in the world.

Don’t Clap.

Connect.

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Fun fact (that I didn’t get to share in the TEDx talk): Henry and I still keep in touch. In fact, I have a piece of his original artwork hanging on the wall right behind me! A bit of empathetic curiosity, asking one powerful question, and the willingness to risk created a connection worth remembering. Now go create your own!

To “gently eradicate small talk” at your next conference, workshop, retreat, or event, get in touch with me directly.

Or if you want to follow the journey through the “We!™ Interactive Learning Letter” go to: www.weand.me/ideas

With gratitude,

Chad Littlefield

Cofounder & CEO of We!™ and speaker, author, and mentor to leaders who are ready to amplify connection, belonging, and trust.

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