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The Informational Benefits of Small Talk!

In previous posts, I have discussed the benefits of small talk. It is crucial to building trust and rapport at the start of any mediation. It is crucial for the mediator to get the parties to “like” her which is done through small talk. If the parties do not “like” the mediator, there will be no trust and rapport. And without trust and rapport, the parties will not honor and respect the mediator, and the mediation will go nowhere very quickly.

A recent New York Times article entitled “Day 3: Small Talk Has Big Benefits” by Jancee Dunn discusses the importance of small talk in getting people to “like” us. It notes that “… people tend to like us more that we presume.” (Id.) So, by engaging in small talk, we will have more positive interactions with everyone we meet, … even our colleagues!

Yet, the article notes there is an added benefit to small talk: learning new stuff. A 2022 study entitled “Talking to Strangers May Make You Smarter Than You Realize” by Stav Atir (an assistant professor of management at the Wisconsin School of Business at University of Wisconsin-Madison) found “… that we underestimate the potential for learning from strangers, colleagues, and others that we micro-interact with daily” (Id.):

“Failing to accurately anticipate how much someone could teach you is consequential. It really matters,” says Atir. “Ironically, not knowing what could be learned in conversation may keep people from having the very experiences that would show them how much they can learn in conversation,” the researchers write in their article published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (Id.)

 To reach these findings, the study randomly paired strangers for a ten-minute conversation. They asked each participant how much they expected to learn before the conversation and then compared that with how much they learned afterwards. Consistently, the participants learned more than they expected from these conversations. The information learned included autobiographical, another’s perspective, advice and instruction on a topic. (Id.)

So why do people hesitate having such conversations and thus underestimate how much can be learned from talking to strangers or colleagues? The author found three reasons:

  • People base expectations on what readily comes to mind; therefore, imagined conversation contains systematically less information than the actual conversational experience.
  • People can better estimate what they might learn given a specific topic. The ambiguity of open-ended conversation makes it difficult to conceive of what could be learned. 
  • Speculatively, people do not choose conversation topics at random but instead gravitate toward topics of mutual interest by asking questions. This can mean meandering across a vast and unpredictable array of topics. (Id.)

So, not only does small talk lead us to “like” people, it may also be very informative.

… Just something to think about.


Phyllis Pollack

Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as… MORE

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