Water Cooler Talk

Inevitably, in an eight-hour day, there are going to be moments when business talk turns to general conversation—small talk. It is a perfect opportunity to build your relationship with colleagues at work. Just as it is an opportunity, there are also pitfalls to avoid .

Effective small talk begins before you start talking. Assess the situation and ask yourself if the other person is really receptive to a conversation or if it’s the right time to initiate one. Your colleague is sitting at a lunch table reading while eating. Instead of starting in about the game the night before, ask, “Hey, John, is this a good time to talk?” John can either be non-committal in which case you back off or he could invite further conversation by looking up, saying something like “Sure, what’s up?” and maybe even closing his book or magazine.

Keep your conversation short. The conversation shouldn’t extend beyond the lunch or break time. So, keep tabs on the time and be ready to end the conversation so you and your colleague can get back to work on time. Preferably end it as you conclude making a statement rather than interrupting the other person. “This was really interesting. Thanks. Catch you later.”

Engage the other person by asking for her opinion. Conversation is a two way street so don’t dominate it. One great way to engage the other person is to ask their opinion, especially if it is about a topic with which they are familiar or interested. “Sue, I was thinking about taking Marge to the opera. You’re an opera buff. What would be a good one for us to see first?”


Introduce other people who may want to join you. Think about how you’d feel if you wanted to join a conversation. Having a person welcome you and make you a part of the conversation would be much better than being ignored. If someone approaches the water cooler or sits at your table at lunch, invite them into your conversation: “Hey, Tommy, we were just talking about.”

Avoid controversial subjects. Sex politics, religion—be careful about pronouncements or personal questions. People might feel really uncomfortable or you could even end up in a friendship-ending argument. If you do engage in a controversial topic take special care not to let differences of opinion become personal. Comments like “You’re wrong!” or “I can’t believe you think that” are not likely to be well received and can escalate a difference of opinion into a full-blown shouting match.

When the shoe is on the other foot. There will be times when a colleague approaches you to chat and you’re not interested. You can gently reject the conversational advance: “You’ve caught me at a bad moment. Can we touch base later? Thanks.” Then, make a point of catching a few moments with your colleague at another time.

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