Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Getting Creative with Business Meal Conversation

We caught up with our friend John Daly for this one. His advice was simple: It's a business lunch or dinner. Its purpose is to discuss business. So, be prepared. Then, he proceeded to tell us how to creatively maneuver our way through it.

Who Should Begin the Business Conversation?

The host should initiate business-related discussions. But not as soon as everyone is seated. He or she should wait until the meal is finishing up, perhaps over coffee, unless there is an urgent situation to address. Otherwise, it's difficult to carry on a serious discussion in-between bites of salad! He or she should leave ample time for the discussion, taking into account the agreed-upon time allotted for the meal.

It is the host's responsibility to guide the conversation, suggest the topics and engage everyone at the table in general conversation before the business discussion takes place. If the table isn't involved in a general discussion, be sure that you engage the folks seated on either side of you. And, junior members of the group should never try to dominate the discussion but rather ask questions and comment when they have something worthy to contribute.

What Qualities Does a Good Conversationalist Have?

To bone up on your conversation skills:
  • Know your audience.
  • Be knowledgeable about a number of topics so that you can vary the conversation to fit the audience.
  • Have a sense of humor in order to entertain others.
  • Be a good listener and truly interested in what others have to say.
  • Never talk down to anyone.
So many people lack the ability to listen, and listening is the most important of all the qualities I've listed. Listening attentively even when you are uninterested is a great skill. I promise you that it will be information that you will need for the future.

Knowing your audience will allow you to make small talk for 30 minutes or so before getting down to business. However, if you are taking an hour lunch with colleagues to discuss business, then stick to business. If entertaining clients in your home or at a restaurant, try to make that entertainment enjoyable and limit business discussion, particularly if significant others have been invited.

What's the Best Way to Start a Conversation?

If you are sharing a meal with guests you see occasionally, or even regularly, open by asking for recent updates in their lives or what they've been doing since the last time you spoke. If you don't know the people that well, do a little background checking to see if you have any common interests, then talk about them. If you don't have any way to check them out, make small talk until you discover common ground.

Small talk will fill the void, ease any uncomfortable moments, and help everyone become acquainted. If you are able to talk about a variety of topics, you can open with subjects like current popular books or movies, travel, sports or news events - all worthy of small talk. But the best way to slide into small talk is by asking others about themselves, their work, hobbies, or family. If you know that one of your guests is particularly expert at a given topic, steer the conversation in that direction.

What Is the Best Way to Kill a Conversation?

It is perfectly acceptable to ask a person about himself or herself. But, never, never ask personal or intimate questions. Avoid:

  • Personal financial situations
  • Details about divorce or intimate relationships
  • Religion
  • Illness of any kind
  • Someone's weight, age or mental health
  • Politics
  • Racial, ethnic and sexually-oriented jokes
  • Harmful gossip
  • Strongly debatable, controversial issues like women or gay rights or abortion.

How Do I Respond to Rudeness?

If you are asked a rude question or are the recipient of a tactless comment, you may handle it in a number of ways. 1) Do not acknowledge the question or comment; 2) provide a vague reply; or 3) look the person straight in the eyes and tell them you do not want to discuss the issue.

It's the host's job to mediate conversations when the need arises. The host can do so by ending the small talk and getting on to business, switching to a lighter topic, or making sure everyone is involved in the conversation.

You don't want to leave one or two people out of a conversation because they are shy or unfamiliar with the topic being discussed. Include them in a conversation by starting it with something with which you know they are involved or interested.

How Do We Keep Business Discussions Confidential?

When having a business meal, always check the proximity of tables near to where you are seated. It is wise not to discuss anything even slightly confidential in a restaurant. Be aware that the voices of those in your party might easily carry to other tables, so set the tone for a lower, softer speaking level. Always keep your professional demeanor, both inside and outside of the office. Remember, when you are in public, you never know who might overhear you. So keep anything critical or confidential inside the office.

John Daly is the founder and president of The Key Class, the go-to-guide for job search and retention success. To learn more about The Key Class, go to To get John's book, The Key Class, which provides business and job search and retention advice, click here. Follow John on Facebook and Twitter @johnjdalyjr.

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