Your Small Talk Skills at Work Stink—Here’s How to Make Them Better
Use these tried-and-tested hacks from etiquette experts and an HR analyst.
There’s no doubt about it: small talk is an unavoidable part of life. And while the extroverts among us may have their small talk skills down to a fine art, if you’re an introvert or someone who errs on the shy side, it can be an anxiety-inducing habit to put into practice.
In today’s world, however, small talk is part of work. Whether your job involves networking events, an endless slew of meetings, or simply ample opportunities where you come face-to-face with colleagues, honing your small talk skills can make a world of difference when it comes to fostering good relationships with coworkers.
From the best sort of questions to ask to knowing when (and how) to exit a conversation, we spoke to two etiquette consultants and an HR analyst for their tips on how to level up your small talk skills.
Yes, you are looking to improve small talk — but you need to be a good listener first.
“People love to talk and listening to them gives you a chance to improve small talk. When you listen, follow up with questions about what they are talking about, and make a conversation from it,” says Adrienne Couch, a Human Resources Analyst at LLC Services.
So, listen actively when someone talks to you, and take an interest. Additionally, try to find out what your colleagues enjoy doing in their spare time.
Etiquette and coaching consultants Rachana Adyanthaya and Julia Esteve Boyd, hosts of Manners Matter 2, a no-nonsense, light-hearted etiquette podcast focusing on modern-day dilemmas, suggest that “knowing and retaining other’s interests means that they will take an interest in you as well.”
Ask easy and open-minded questions
“A tip that has always worked and I emphasize is asking your colleagues open-ended, easy questions,” says Couch. “An open-ended question makes it easy to start up a conversation.”
For example, if you’re getting ready for a meeting, ask the other person how they got involved in the project. You can also make a general comment on your surroundings instead of asking a question.
“For example,” Couch continues, “if you notice a new painting, art, award, or book, spark a conversation about it with your co-worker.” This can be a great way to build rapport and get the conversation going.
Work on your non-verbal cues
A non-verbal cue can be anything from holding a door open to smiling at a coworker. While such actions may seem small and insignificant, they can make a big difference when it comes to improving relationships at work.
It’s normal to feel anxious and nervous if you are a new team member or employee. However, your non-verbal cues also send a message. So, work on them. Watch how you sit; how you carry yourself.
“For example, slumping at your desk or avoiding eye contact communicates you are timid and unconfident,” says Couch.
Another simple but effective cue is to “smile and be approachable. Often, we are buried under our work and don’t look up to say ‘hello.’ Simple eye contact and a smile go a long way,” say Adyanthaya and Boyd.
Try sitting upright, making eye contact, holding a gaze, and smiling at the people you share an office space with. Non-verbal cues can increase social bonding and will make people engage with you more.
Disclose something general about yourself
Sharing something about yourself is another great way to improve small talk at work.
After introducing yourself, try mentioning something work-related and not too personal about yourself.
For example, “I just got vetted into this committee and am excited to be part of the project.”
Know how (and when) to exit a conversation
You need to know when and how to exit a conversation. Unfortunately, the workplace is not an ideal place to hold long conversations and even the most interesting exchange will come to an end.
So, it’s important to make a smooth exit to avoid awkwardness and to encourage further talks later.
Couch suggests that “you communicate that something needs your attention, or your next appointment is coming up. Thank the other person for their time and let them know the conversation was fun. You can reference something they said and how you found it interesting, and you would love to hear more next time.”