Small Talk in the Big World

Small talk is one big deal – an important part of building business relationships. It is when you and your coworkers let down your guard while sitting at a cafeteria lunch table, waiting for a meeting to begin, or hanging out in the copier room that your personality and real interests come to the fore. Almost any topic is up for grabs so long as it’s not malicious, derogatory, inflammatory or indiscreet (what’s left, you ask?).

By being open to opportunities for small talk, you’ll discover who is the resident expert on grand opera or NASCAR racing, who is the movie buff, the gourmet cook, and the night-school scholar. If you’re attentive, you can learn in a matter of minutes who is the office gossip, the snob and the backstabber. Through small talk, your coworkers also become better acquainted with you, finding out if you’re social and easy to talk to – something that’s to your advantage in the workplace.

Over the years, I have written down these twelve tips for making big gains from small talk:

1. When initiating small talk – say, as you wait for the elevator or before the start of a meeting – be attuned to the other person’s receptiveness. If he or she seems distracted or unresponsive, take the hint and back off.

2. Even when the person is willing to chat, don’t overstay your welcome. Remember that small talk should not get in the way of business.

3. Whatever the subject – sports, movies, the latest political scandal – don’t try to dominate the conversation. Ask for the other person’s opinions and show genuine interest in his or her ideas.

4. If other people come along, make an effort to include them in the conversation. You may need to switch topics to something that everyone can discuss. Whatever the subject, don’t leave the impression that the newcomers interrupted a more important conversation.

5. Think before you speak and avoid subjects that are too personal. It’s okay, for example, to share war stories about raising teenage children. But if your coworker’s son recently flunked out of college, stay far away from any talk about the irresponsibility of today’s young people. If a sensitive subject does come up, be guided by the attitude of your conversation partner.

6. It’s fine to disagree with someone, but phrase your comments politely. “You’re wrong!” is hostile and combative, while “Actually, I just don’t agree with you about that but I’d like to hear more of your opinion,” is tactful.

7. Don’t overuse “I.” Once you’ve told a story about yourself, ask a question that allows the other person to take his turn on the subject.

8. Be careful not to repeat yourself. Telling the same story again and again or going back over details is overkill, to put it mildly. Many things are of interest when told for the first time, but the twice-told tale quickly becomes boring. A good conversationalist remembers what he or she has said, and takes care to avoid repetition.

9. Keep abreast of the world outside. Reading a daily newspaper and a weekly news magazine to learn what’s happening beyond the office supplies you with subject matter for small talk and shows that you aren’t a mere drone.

10. Be aware of the impact of small talk on those working around you. Keep the sound volume under control, and read the body language of anyone nearby you to judge whether to keep talking or to take the conversation elsewhere. Whispering may suggest gossiping or secretiveness, leaving a bad impression on others.

11. To end small talk, leave after you, not the other person, has made a statement. It’s rude to create the impression, however unintentional, that your chat partner said something that drove you away. Conclude with a remark such as “Well, I think it’s time to get back to work” or “This was really interesting. We’ll have to talk again.”

12. If a coworker who wants to chat interrupts you while you’re working, suggest another time. “You’ve caught me at a bad moment. Can we touch base after I’ve finished these letters?” If you do the interrupting, be sensitive to the other person’s reaction. If he or she says they can’t stop, take “no” for an answer and don’t take offense or feel rejected.

There you have my twelve thoughts on small talk. Add a little content, mix it up with the right group and you’ll be on your way to success.

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