Here’s how you can master the art of small talk to reap big rewards in your career

Talking to people makes us feel connected
Talking to people makes us feel connected
AJ Watt/Getty Images

If your tummy twists itself into knots at the thought of making small talk, you’re not alone. There are about 3 billion workers in the world, says the World Bank, and every day 2,9 billion do their best to dodge small talk with their co-workers. Headphones are a great help if you’re in an office, but if you’re car-pooling, trapped in public transport or at a party or a work function, it’s hard to avoid chit-chat.

Headphones, sunglasses and “very urgent” WhatsApp messages may seem like the obvious fix, but there’s plenty of evidence that small talk can be good for your career, social life, happiness levels and your brainpower. Here’s how you can get to grips with small talk, and possibly even enjoy it.

Why it’s hard

Small talk can feel draining because these mini conversations are frequently pointless. We all know it’s going to rain all week, so do we really need to go on and on about the weather forecast? If the chit-chat takes place solely to avoid awkward silences, then we don’t learn anything about the person we’re with. “Introverts don’t hate small talk because we dislike people,” says psychologist Laurie Helgoe.

“We hate small talk because we hate the barrier it creates between people.” And if small talk is difficult, the absence of it can be just as unpleasant – after all, who wants to feel like they’re unable to connect with other people?

Being a people’s person

Even if you don’t like small talk, there’s a good chance other people don’t think you’re bad at it. A study published in the journal Psychological Science in 2018 showed that people “underestimated how much their conversation partners liked them and enjoyed their company”, which means you’re probably more likeable than you may think. “People don’t remember what you say – they remember how they felt when they were with you,” says Ellie Hearne, founder of communications agency Pencil or Ink, which teaches companies and executives how to have better internal communication.

“Talking to people makes us feel connected to others. This matters because we are social creatures. “Psychologists think we have a need to belong and we suffer physically and men tally when we don’t feel as connected as we want,” says Dr Gillian Sandstrom, a psychologist at the University of Essex. It’s also good for your brain, say researchers at the University of Michigan, who found that friendly social interaction can boost our ability to solve problems.

Make it meaningful

If you find small talk dull, then make it interesting. You don’t have to do it on the fly either – simply keep a mental list of a few questions and anecdotes handy. “Discussing things you truly care about is always the best strategy,” says career coach Jamie Terran. “Topics relating to your work, for example, or an article or a book you read are great places to start.” If you’ve done something interesting or unusual recently, mentally outline how you’d tell the story to share the next time small talk gets boring. When the conversation starts with, “Hi, how are you? Good, how are you?” it can quickly go nowhere. Instead try, “I’m well, thanks. I’ve been reading an interesting book/watching this new series, and it’s really good. Have you heard of it?”

Work it at work

Small talk with co-workers and your boss helps build your professional relationship with them, as well as creating a rapport or a bond of trust, Terran says. “Rapport is the feeling that allows you to extend a deadline or overlook smaller mistakes because it makes it easy for you to remember we’re only human. “Right or wrong, building rapport with colleagues could be the thing that gets you a promotion or keeps you in the job you’re in.” THE RIGHT QUESTIONS People enjoy talking about themselves, so ask open-ended questions that can’t be answered with one word. For example, instead of asking someone, “What do you do for a living?” try something like, “What keeps you busy these days?”.

Try FORD

Try these categories of questions to get conversations started, and to keep them going.

FORD stands for Family, Occupation, Recreation and Dreams.
  • F : Family-related questions are a good icebreaker, but it’s important to listen closely and have follow-up questions. If you’re talking to someone you already know, “How are the children?” is a good conversation starter, as are follow-ups such as “What sports do they play?”. Or try something like, “I’m going to visit my parents at the weekend. Where do your folks live?”
  • O : Ask about a person’s job to start a work-related conversation. Try starting with, “What line of work are you in?” and follow it with “That’s interesting, how did you end up doing that sort of work?”. With each new interaction, psychologist Susan Krauss Whitbourne says, you should try to learn something new. “If you show others that you are interested, they will be more likely to open up and talk more.”
  • R : The weekend or holidays are never too far from most people’s minds, so try an opener like, “Where did you last go on holiday?” and follow it with “I was there too, did you visit XYZ?” or “I’ve always wanted to go there. Tell me more about your trip”. Now you have a mutual interest.
  • D : This one can be tricky, as people might not pick up on the suggested topics right away, but don’t give up on it too soon. It can include questions like, “If you could travel anywhere, where would you go?” or “Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?”


Listen up

Pay attention to what the other person says, and mentally picture keywords and phrases that they’re using. Try not to focus on what you’ll say or ask next, as listening will make for a more relaxed and natural conversation, and you won’t appear distracted. Restating what the person has said, in your own words, shows you’re paying attention and will encourage them to continue talking. For example, “What was that funny thing you said your son did last weekend?”

Body Language

Position yourself so you’re facing the other person, with your arms uncrossed and at your sides. Smile, and lean in slightly, but don’t crowd their space. This shows that you’re interested in the conversation.

No-phone Zone

The mere presence of a cellphone can ruin a conversation, according to a study called The iPhone Effect. Keep it in your pocket or bag, never on the table. If you’re expecting an urgent call or message, set a notification for it.

A smooth exit

To make a graceful exit, always use the words “I need”. This indicates that you’re not leaving because you’re bored. For example, “I’m so sorry, I need to run. My friend has arrived and she’ll be wondering where I am.”

There’s an app for that

Take your small talk game to the next level with these handy, free apps.

TIBBITS

Keep track of interesting bits of information about people with this app that helps you remember names and lets you assign labels to people so you can categorise them according to how you know them. It’s available for download on both Android and IOS.

BEYOND SMALL TALK

Developed by a psychology professor, this app supplies introspective questions about childhood memories, hopes, dreams, and more, categorised based on how well you know the other person – new friends, travel companions, dating, etc. It’s available for download on both Android and IOS.

TRENDING

Stay in the know with this app that collates the top searches from Google, the most-watched videos from YouTube and the most-searched for articles on Wikipedia. If people are talking about it, well now you know about it too, and you can effortlessly drop it into any conversation. It’s available for download on Android.

Sources: Datatopics.Worldbank.Org, Fastcompany.Com, Nbcnews.Com, Nytimes.Com, Onstride.Co.Uk, The Muse.Com