Do you feel awkward or uncomfortable when colleagues lapse into casual conversation in the cafeteria or by the water cooler? While you may feel confident discussing issues related to your profession, you may feel less at ease participating in daily workplace small talk.
What is Small Talk?
Small talk is the informal conversation that is considered the foundation of many workplace and social relationships. It centres on topics such as the weather, current events, sports, hobbies and travel.
Why is Small Talk So Important?
For various reasons, small talk is actually a pretty big issue.
- Many of our important relationships grow out of small talk.
- Critical first impressions can be made.
- Strong collegial connections can be formed.
Is Vocabulary an Issue?
A participant in one of Gandy Associates’ Business English courses recently shared a story about small talk in his life. This internationally trained professional was determined to expand his vocabulary beyond the domain of his expertise in computer programming. With commitment and enthusiasm he learned the language related to the construction of his backyard deck. Not only did this project result in newly acquired vocabulary, but the experience enriched his relationships at work. In addition, he found that through small talk he was able to build stronger connections with co-workers as they compared projects, exchanged ideas, and shared advice through mutual interests.
Seven Small Talk Strategies
While it may seem a daunting task, small talk skills can be nurtured through the application of specific strategies.
1. Greet and initiate
After your greeting, initiate the conversation with a question or comment.
- Did you see the hockey game last night?
- Looks like a storm is brewing*.
- Are you planning a vacation this winter?
*Commit to learning and using a few idioms on a regular basis
2. Watch body language
Use body posture and facial expression to help the conversation proceed smoothly.
- Be sure to maintain eye contact, smile appropriately, and keep an open stance.
- Watch for physical cues signaling the end of a conversation.
3. Listen carefully
Keep in mind that listening is just as important as talking.
- Listen attentively to understand the nature of the conversation
- Respond appropriately based on the topics and tone you hear.
4. Ask open-ended questions
To extend a conversation, ask questions that invite answers beyond a simple yes or no.
- What are your plans for the holidays?
- What are your thoughts on the new proposal?
5. Avoid sensitive topics
Be aware that certain topics may be too personal for small talk at work.
- Health issues
6. Exit gracefully
To wrap up a small talk conversation, have a few phrases ready to signal the end.
- Well, I suppose I should let you go.
- I guess I should get going.
With people you see regularly, use your memory to develop a small talk context over time.
- Remember the details of today’s conversation for future small talk with that person.
- In your next conversation, offer a question or comment to follow up on your previous interactions.
With practice, you can acquire the ability to fully participate in the daily, casual chit chat of the workplace environment. As you become more at ease with small talk, you may be pleasantly surprised to discover that you actually enjoy these brief, social interactions with your colleagues. The benefits will manifest in improved business relationships and new friendships.
Patricia Dods teaches business communication training in the Ottawa area for Gandy Associates.