Though it’s called “small talk” there’s nothing small about it when it comes to a negotiation or mediation (or any other situation where you’re trying to build rapport). If you’re going to have a meaningful conversation with someone you don’t know, or don’t know very well, small talk is a way to start building that bridge to the other party. Only after that bridge is built can the parties reach out to each other and resolve a dispute between them.
The Muse has a number of suggestions on how to start and maintain a conversation.
You can ask the other attorney about their practice, the types of clients they work with and what kind of work they focus on. Ask open-ended questions.
Don’t dominate the conversation
Make the conversation about the other person. People like to talk about themselves and being the focus of attention. They may also think you’re very smart for asking them questions and have a higher opinion of you than if you just rambled on about yourself.
Discuss positive subjects
Talk about the future, whether that’s a vacation, weekend plans or other projects going on. You could always talk about how bad the traffic is but that’s not going to put the other person in a positive frame of mind.
Put the person in the best light
Make the other person look good and give credit where credit is due. Use compliments without being too cheesy, so you don’t come off as insincere.
Build on what you have in common
You’re on opposite sides of a lawsuit or serious dispute, but that doesn’t mean you have nothing in common. Do you both have kids in middle school or college? Did you go to the same law school? Maybe you both worked at the same law firm in the past.
Topics to avoid
Politics and religion are never good, initial small talk topics but there are others that also should be avoided. Physical appearance (unless you have a genuine, positive, sensitive thing to say) of the other person or others in the room would not be a good idea. Bringing up subjects that would reveal your socioeconomic status (a really nice car you just bought or the fact paying off that second mortgage is killing you) is another topic to avoid.
Be a good listener
Focus on the other person. Make eye contact. Ask follow-up questions. Think about your body language. Is the way you’re sitting or standing sending the message you’re not interested in what’s being said or that you’re open to the discussion?
How well you engage in small talk or maintain a conversation probably won’t make or break the negotiation or mediation but it can help, and there are days when we need as much help as we can get. Rapport and empathy are necessary for a successful resolution to a conflict and getting to know the other person better helps make that happen. It’s worth the effort to give it a try.