Although it might not seem like it, small talk is a skill. Like any skill, it needs to be practised to get right and the more you do it, the better you become.
Let’s admit it- most of us hate small talk. It seems meaningless, superficial and a complete waste of our precious time. It can also be excruciating to know which topics to discuss and how long to dedicate to them. In fact, some people hate small talk so much that two behavioral scientists hosted a dinner party where small talk was completely banned. The article published in Wired said that the removal of small talk made all guests feel happier.
Unfortunately, we can’t all successfully ban small talk from our lives. If we did, we’d never make new friends, we’d never get our bosses to like us, and we’d never survive another date again. For that reason, it’s better to prepare yourself and feel confident engaging in small talk with anyone and everyone.
Have Faith In Yourself
Most of us dread small talk because we think we’ll say something stupid, offensive or be viewed as a social disaster. For that reason, it’s better to stay schtum, right? Wrong. A 2018 study published in Psychological Science showed that people consistently underestimate how much their conversation partners enjoyed their company. Remember that you blame yourself when you have a wish-the-ground-would-swallow-you-up encounter, and so do they! They’re not thinking that you’re a complete and utter failure at conversation- they’re thinking that they are. So, have faith in your abilities and be confident that despite what you might think, some people actually will- and do- enjoy your company!
Destroy The Cycle
You can’t escape the mind-numbing experience of ‘How are you?’ ‘Good thanks, how are you?’- so make it better. The key here is not to simply reply with ‘how’ you are but ‘why’ you are. For example…
‘Hi. How are you?’
‘I’m really good. I went for a lovely run this morning before work. Do you ever run?’
Tell them why you feel a certain way and accompany this with a relevant follow-up question. This could end in…
Option A– ‘Yes, I love to run. How far do you usually go?’= you’ve got yourself a running buddy or at the very least, a go-to conversation topic with this colleague.
Option B– ‘When I’m catching a train’= a joke to help build a rapport.
Make It About Them
Some of us avoid making small talk because we’re not always comfortable talking about our personal lives- especially with colleagues at work. Well, you’re in luck. Most people are good at talking, and they enjoy it. Think about when you’re engaged in a conversation and you need to get away to pick up your daughter, or to catch the bus, or get home in time for dinner. It can be so hard to get the other person to stop speaking. Put them in the spotlight by asking open-ended questions. Showing enthusiasm for their responses will extend the communicative exchange and they’ll appreciate you listening to them. If you would like to learn how to improve your relationships through active listening, then take a look at one of our training programmes which will provide the tools and strategies to help improve your conversation skills.
Talk About What You Care About
As I mentioned earlier, one of the reasons we shun office chit chat is because of its superficial value. Generally, we don’t talk about anything meaningful or fascinating. We stick to the three w’s- work, weather and weekend plans. But, you are in the driver’s seat. Take control of the conversation and bring up topics of interest, whether that’s a new series you’ve started watching or a hobby you’re passionate about. We tend to enjoy listening to people who are passionate about what they do or what they’re speaking about.
Have An Arsenal Of Stories And Questions
If you really want to be able to talk to anyone confidently and without the fear of knowing what to say, it’s best to have a few core questions or a bank of anecdotes which you can rely upon whenever. This might be a story from a workshop you recently attended or perhaps a question about a current article you’ve noticed in the newspaper in the break room. Have these on hand to avoid trawling through your brain or desperately searching for common ground.
Faux Pas Will Happen
If you fear small talk, the chances are, it won’t always go to plan. Even if you put into practise the points in this article, you might occasionally find yourself in that moment of silence that lasts for an eternity. Take this as a lesson. Think about what went wrong and why it occurred. Use this to better your conversation next time.
Small talk is never going to go away, otherwise what else would Shelly from accounting do whilst reheating her leftovers for lunch, or how else would Brian from sales fill the walk from his desk to the car park at the end of the day. So, your choices are to continue feeling the dread, the intimidation and the anxiety that you might currently feel, or embrace it. Building rapport with people builds trust. It might help your boss overlook small mistakes. It might get you an interview for a promotion. And it can even help get you the job in the first place as people tend to hire those that they want to work with.
If the thought of chit chat makes you shudder or the idea of break room banter makes you want to crawl into a hole, you could benefit from upgrading your communication skills. We’re not all born with the ability to speak in a confident and compelling way, and we’re also not all natural listeners.
Fancy testing your communication skills? This 2-minute assessment will provide you with immediate results, honest feedback and tailored follow-up actions. May you never say ‘I’m good, how are you?’ again.