Small talk doesn’t always feel small. Like when you’re meeting a new colleague for the first time. Or mingling at a networking event. Or you’re hoping some chitchat will break the ice before a high-stakes meeting.
I’ve built a company on relational communications skills and been quoted in The New York Times on small-talk. Yet, even following a workshop I’ve just led for Fortune 500 leaders on communication skills, I have been known to clam up at the thought of chatting with the cab driver afterwards.
If any of these scenarios feels relatable to you, you’re not alone. Issues of relational communications and small talk come up frequently for a lot of people:
“I’m not sure what to say when we’re waiting for a meeting to start.”
“My company culture is chatty and approachable - but I’m not.”
“Trust is a little lacking on my team. How can I build it?”
Small talk isn’t a panacea. In fact, it’s often as cringeworthy as you might fear.
But here’s why it’s important - and how to do it well.
At work, connection enhances results.
In other words, bonding with and relating to the people you work with improves business results - and individual success.
Simply asking how someone’s doing can go a long way towards building a relationship. The key is to be present; and even better if you can take a genuine interest in what they say.
What should I talk about?
When someone asks how you’re doing, try to get past “Fine, you?” to something a bit more meaningful (and honest). There are exceptions of course - steer clear of anything too controversial - but try to get out of conversational autopilot.
Most people’s conversational approach depends on finding common ground - but building trust and connecting with people isn’t necessarily about having a shared interest or point of view.
If you rely too much on “Oh no way, I went to that college, too!” or “We both love the same [music/books/tv programs]”-type interactions, you’ll quickly surround yourself with a team of clones - and struggle to connect with anyone whose background, opinion, or approach is different to yours.
Why make time for so-called small talk?
When you’re trying to figure out what’s missing from a struggling professional relationship, think about whether you and the person in question have ever sought one another out for anything other than a work challenge.
You don’t have to spend time together outside the office, but perhaps check in with them occasionally when you’re not after them for a work deliverable. After all, we all tend to like people who put us at ease quickly.
Small talk can also help tackle the rise of “workplace loneliness.” Since workforces are increasingly remote and/or more reliant on tools like video calls, email, and Slack, those oft-derided watercooler interactions are missing and people are feeling their absence.
What’s more, you don’t have to work remotely to feel the absence of opportunities to interact. Increasingly, we hear about the “rockstar” employee with stellar technical skills… who turns out to be damaging morale, engagement, and retention thanks to a lack of people savvy. Small talk, good listening, and true interaction shouldn’t be afterthoughts.
“This is great, Ellie, but I’m incredibly shy.”
You don’t have to become someone you’re not. Focus on listening well. And if someone engages you in small talk, go with the flow of the conversation. Show genuine curiosity to get to know the person - and try get beyond the surface-small talk if possible.
As a leading expert recently said, “People don’t remember what you say – they remember how they felt when they were with you.”
Ellie Hearne is a leadership-communications expert and founder of Pencil or Ink. She has worked with Apple, Google, Kate Spade, Marriott, Morgan Stanley, Oracle, Pfizer, Piaget, Spotify, Starbucks, and Twitter, among others, and has coached numerous individuals and teams. Ellie can be reached here, here, and here, conversation-starters at the ready.