I don’t engage in small talk. What’s the point of communicating irrelevant information? A seemingly trivial diagnostic question I will use is “how’s it going?” Most people will use that cue to tell me everything about a current pain point they’re either consciously or subconsciously trying to overcome. Since they complained to me, I’ll coax out hidden information to help guide or push them toward an optimal resolution. Here’s some of what I might do:
I look for emotional word choices.
Emotional words – including “feel” (emotive interpretation of an event), “terrible” (negative), and “fantastic” (positive) – push you in certain directions. These words can be switched out with more neutral words, leaving the interpretation up to the listener, instead up being informed by the speaker. Speakers may also emphasize these words to clue you in that these feelings are important to them.
Let’s start off easy with immediate complaining: “This damn thing died at a crucial moment!”
Detachment from the situation (“this thing”), overly dramatic language (“died,” “crucial”), while expressing somewhat explicit language (“damn”) will tell you this is not a logical problem. The response that conflicts the least is a short, empathetic response. Watch for the response. If well received, followed up by proposing a plan to resolve the problem. Otherwise, keep listening to the complaining.
Here’s a less obvious one: “Not too bad…”
This response is usually more guarded, so there’s something lingering under the surface. Maybe the issue will appear in the conversation. Maybe it won’t. It’s typically just a matter of guiding them along in these situations, either by giving them a space to complain about their current pain point, or helping them find a way to forget about all that.
Quick, curt answers like “fine” or “good” are deceptive.
Taken logically, these people are just “fine” or “good.” Actually, they’re hiding a boiling stress. That pain point is so much that they can barely contain it and yet they either can’t or won’t express themselves freely. If you want to help, allow them the free space to thrash out their problem. If not, get out of that conversation quickly!
This is slightly different than: “good, and you?”
That’s polite deflection. I’ll use this when I’m disinterested in sharing and would rather listen. Deflection is particularly useful when dealing with people that are quick to express their emotions, since once we’ve diffused their current pain points, then they’re more interested in talking about other topics. If they keep complaining, I’ll subtly disengage from the conversation until they stop.
The “how’s it going?” reply fascinates me.
It’s like saying hello. Deflective responses like this cue you in that you should come up with a conversation. You might be tempted to complain about a current pain point or talk about something neutral like the weather.
Bring up something you’re passionate about…
A recent accomplishment…
Share a little about yourself…
“I just finished a cool short story. It’s a twist on a bank heist…”
You might make new friends.