Small talk, a phrase dreaded by many as it usually conjures up pictures of an awkward situation where you have to make conversation with someone you don’t know at all or don’t know well. In reality, it might not just be awkward situations when it is necessary but situations that become awkward if you find ‘small talk’ challenging. Situations when it is likely to be important in a work context include at the start or end of a meeting (internal or external), at an event (To read my complete guide to networking at events, click here) or even just about the office.
I have had many clients recently, especially those in technical sectors such as actuarial, say how hard they find it and question whether it’s necessary in a work context.

Does it matter?

To tackle the question first about its importance – with most people, it is extremely important. It helps us to connect on a human level that is beyond the ‘functional’ reason for meeting. When it works well, it helps to create some connection, warmth and empathy. The more natural and free flowing the ‘small talk’ part of the conversation is, the easier the ‘work’ conversation will be. It helps us get a sense of a person before we focus on the work purpose.
Whilst getting into more real and deeper small talk may take a while, at least starting with some general conversation helps to establish rapport and build strong professional relationships. Even if the other person has very different work knowledge and experience to us, they also had to get to the meeting/event today and have probably been on some sort of break if we’re seeing them at the end of the summer. As humans, we share similar experiences and life patterns.

Top tips

So the first good rule of thumb is to keep to general topics that can have no element of judgement, for instance asking about someone’s journey that day, rather than their opinion on the hot political topic of the moment.
Secondly, ask open questions rather than ones that elicit a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response.
Thirdly – listen for and offer hooks! People often tell me they don’t know what they can ask, especially if people are from different cultures. Listen for what people mention, if they say they’re relatively new in their role for instance, you could ask about their previous role, how long they’ve been in this one etc. Likewise, offer hooks to people – the more you mention, the more they can ask about. Hooks are a vital tool for getting conversations flowing!
So, think about your next work situation when ‘small talk’ is likely to be required? Think about using these tips to build rapport and create free flowing conversation – vital for building strong professional relationships.

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