We all have them. We all use them. In fact, we seem to be surrounded by them.
Catch phrases. Those little bits of verbiage that just seem to unconsciously (or consciously) slip into our speech and writing.
Some that I hear most commonly these days are:
- At the end of the day…
- Having said that…
- The narrative (as in “they did not like the outcome of the poll, so they want to change the narrative”)
- Optics (as in “the event did not look very good, so they worked hard to change the optics”)
- Whatever (as in, well, whatever…)
- Look (as in “Look: the only thing right about what you said is that it is wrong.”)
- Let’s be honest (as if we usually are not!)
- How are you?
And the list can go on and on.
Admittedly I have my own that slip right into my conversations and writing. One of my favorites seems to be: “At all events.” I suspect you will find me use that in this blog before you finish reading it.
The last one on the list seems to be a fall back for us all: “How are you?” or “How are you doing?” More often than not it is an ice breaker or a conversation starter, but let’s be honest about it (!) we really don’t intend to get a straight answer from the person to whom we ask it, do we? And usually the person we ask it to simply says ‘good’ or ‘fine’ and we move on. Or not. What comes next can be awkward at times. The conversation can immediately become stagnant or cease to exist at all.
Of course, if we just move on, we miss an opportunity to really connect with someone.
Gary Burnison, CEO of Korn Ferry, and a contributor to CNBC, points out in a blog that successful people take this opportunity to turn catch phrases or ‘small talk’ into something more meaningful (“Stop asking ‘how are you?’ Harvard researchers say this is what successful people do when making small talk” CNBC.com March 7, 2019. Read it here).
Burnison writes: “…the key to making the most out of small talk, according to Harvard researchers, is to simply ask the other person follow-up questions. In a series of experiments, researchers analyzed more than 300 online conversations and found that those who were asked more meaningful follow-up questions (a.k.a. questions that aren’t “how are you?” or “what do you do?”), found the other person much more likable.”
Burnison suggests seven ideas on how to move deeper into a conversation with someone by avoiding the routine.
- “Use the A.C.T. trick to start a
connection.” Rather than ask “How are
you” ask a question which meets Burnison’s ACT criteria:
- A-There is authenticity
- C-There is a connection
- T-There is a topic that will give them a taste of who you are
Some examples he gives are “What’s your current state of mind?” or “What are you looking forward to this week?”
- “Move beyond the ‘hourly update.’” How often do we go from “How are you?” to a discussion about the weather or sports. One of my favorites is “What time does your flight leave?” (how is that for a hint?). Burnison suggests trying to focus instead on topics that are “more important and personal to you.”
- “Be in the moment and observe your surroundings.” Try focusing on something in the surroundings that is interesting “…like the piece of art on the wall, a quirky gadget or family picture on their desk, a race car helmet, scattered coins from various countries and so on.” This approach can certainly take the conversation in a more personal direction and make a more direct connection.
- “Share some news (that actually happened).” Be authentic and personal. “If you have ‘news,’ share it: ‘I adopted a pet over the weekend’ or ‘My 6-year-old rode a bike for the first time yesterday!’ Believe it or not, most people actually do want to know more about others, especially if they both work at the same company.”
- “Talk early.” This one threw me at first, but he makes a good point. By initiating a conversation, we can set the subject and break the ice without having to be glib about it. Sometimes it is easy to just get ‘walked on’ in a meeting or conference call and this can help set the tone.
- “It’s not just what you say.” Here body language comes into play. Eye contact, smiling, and openness in general will make the other person feel more comfortable and help others connect with you.
- “Make the pivot.” This takes practice as at some point the conversation needs to turn to the subject at hand. Asking “How are you?” and getting “fine” often makes the transition to the meat of the conversation awkward at best. Take the clues you get from the other person, or let them make the first move, but pivot into the subject and don’t revert back to some subject not relevant.
I would also add to his list that it is very easy to fall into using catch phrases unconsciously if for no other reason than we have had them ingrained into us to sound more intelligent, or simply to buy time to come up with what we are going to say next. At all events (see I told you so!), I know how hard that is to do, but fresh speech with infrequent use of ‘um,’ or frequent use of catch phrases, keep the listener engaged. Sometimes just taking a pause before we speak instead of falling into a catch phrase helps craft a more conversational message. This takes work and self-awareness but at the end of the day (!), who does not appreciate a more productive and substantive conversation?
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