I often talk with groups about the importance of being good at small talk, especially in business social situations with people outside your company. But small talk is important inside your company, too. Engaging in small talk at the office is part of building relationships and learning the lay of the land in terms of who can be helpful to you and, frankly, who you want to avoid.
Similarly, how you engage in small talk directly affects your image in your colleagues’ minds. Here are ten pieces of advice to help you excel at small talk in the office:
- Look for signals. Don’t just start talking. If someone doesn’t seem receptive to a chat, back off.
- Office small talk—water-cooler conversation—is an expected part of the day, especially during breaks or at meals. Just remember that even if the other person is willing to chat, bring it to a close when it’s time to get back to work.
- If another person approaches to join your conversation, be willing to include him or her. Put yourself in their shoes for a moment, and think how you would like to be treated if it was you trying to join a conversation.
- Avoid private, personal conversations that you wouldn’t want a third party to overhear or join.
- It’s okay to voice your opinion, but keep personal comments out of your discussion. “I can’t believe you would support such a cause!” or, “What on earth makes you think that?” are examples of inappropriate and combative responses. Instead think about a more tactful approach such as, “Actually, I just don’t share your view on that, but I’d be interested to hear what you have to say.”
- Be informed. Stay abreast of the news, sports, entertainment, and issues in your area of business. That way, if these topics come up in conversation, you can contribute knowledgeably.
- One of the best conversation gambits is to prepare by having a question or two ready ahead of time.
- Anytime you can ask another person for their opinion, you open the door to conversation. “I heard you’re an opera buff. What is so compelling about opera for you?” You’ve just given permission for that person to talk about her favorite topic, and she will.
- Don’t be afraid to end a conversation, especially if it is eating into work time. “That was really interesting. We’ll have to talk again.” is one way to gently end a conversation.
- If it’s not a good time for you to talk, be honest and suggest an alternative time. “I have a report I’ve got to get finished. Can we touch base later?”
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Patricia Hunt Sinacole is president of First Beacon Group LLC, a human resources consulting firm in Hopkinton. She works with clients across many industries including technology, biotech and medical devices, financial services, and healthcare, and has over 20 years of human resources experience.
Elaine Varelas is managing partner at Keystone Partners, a career management firm in Boston and serves on the board of Career Partners International.
Cindy Atoji Keene is a freelance journalist with more than 25 years experience. E-mail her directly here.
Peter Post is the author of "The Etiquette Advantage in Business." Email questions about business etiquette to him directly here.
Stu Coleman, a partner and general manager at WinterWyman, manages the firm's Financial Contracting division, and provides strategic staffing services to Boston-area organizations needing Accounting and Finance workforce solutions and contract talent.
Tracy Cashman is a partner and the general manager of the Information Technology search division at WinterWyman. She has 20 years of experience partnering with clients in the Boston area to conduct technology searches in a wide variety of industries and technology.
Paul Hellman is the founder of Express Potential, which specializes in executive communication skills. He consults and speaks internationally on how to capture attention & influence others. Email him directly here.