Soft Skills

Small Talk For a Great Purpose

Project managers spend 90% of their time communicating. You`ve probably heard this statement before and this is definitely true. Hence, communicative skills are very important for the people who take leadership positions.

Most of the time, when at work, we communicate in order to share ideas, get feedback, negotiate something,  resolve problems, etc. But from time to time we face the situations when we communicate without some business related purpose. Such kind of talks is called small talks and, in fact, they are also meaningful in some sense.
So, what is the purpose of a small talk? Depending on the situation, a small talk at work may happen in order to get to know someone new, to become closer with coworkers, to avoid awkward silence, to kill the time while waiting for something (somebody) or even to decrease the difference in status.

What are the most common situations a small talk seems to be a good fit for? I can name a number of them. The first example is when you meet your colleague in the hall or in the kitchen at your office during a break. Why not to ask him about how he is doing or how his project is going?  Another common situation is when you are commuting to your workplace in the elevator. Elevators are the champions among the places where awkward moments usually happen.

However, small talks are applicable not only in a physical space, but in some virtual environment as well. Imagine the situation (I believe that most of you face it quite often), when you`ve connected to a remote meeting  with some stakeholder and there is some other participants who are late (as usual). You both said “hello” to each other and what is next? Let me guess. Some of you will probably say “Let’s wait for the others ”, another one agrees and then you both are mute keeping doing your own business on your computers or just slacking. Congratulations! You have just missed an opportunity to get to know more about you partner and to build trust between you.

Although small talks often serve as a solution for avoiding awkward moments, they themselves may lead to those awkward moments if done improperly. That is why it’s important to be prepared for this type of activity. A successful small talk depends on a couple of factors: among them are correctly selected topic, proper behavior of interlocutors and readiness to follow some simple rules of etiquette.

Let’s consider a topic of a small talk. It is obvious that in order to select the right topic and to follow it you have to be prepared. You need to know some basic information either about the person you are going to talk to or about the topic you are going to discuss. For instance, if you prefer to discuss local news, it is necessary to track regularly what is going on in your area by following  local news websites or reading newspapers. At the same time there are some forbidden topics for a small talk that may only kill the conversation or even harm your relationships with the conversation partner. Let’s take a closer look at these topics.

Choosing a topic for a small-talk

Universal small talk topics

  • Weather. The weather is the most popular conversation starter. Everyone can tell a couple of words about the weather. However, the main shortcoming of this topic is that the discussion about the weather can’t go on for a long. So, this topic is quite good for starting a conversation, but after that you should switch to another topic, in other case the conversation will stall very quickly.
  • Current situation or location. Current situation or location is a very convenient topic for a small talk because this is something you are sharing at the moment. It makes perfect sense to ask your interlocutor`s opinion and his attitude to what is happening. This is quite a reasonable point to start a talk with your conversation partner.
  • Breaking news. Our brains are wired to seeking something new. Positive news makes us happy, negative news, on the contrary, makes us unhappy or scared. But in both cases we are interested in news and tend to share our opinion about it with others. That is why the most recent and trending news is a good topic for discussion. The only caveat here is that it’s better to avoid discussing news related to the non-recommended topics listed below in this article.
  • Entertainment. Most of people love having a fun. And sometimes people love sharing their experience about having a fun even more than having a fun itself. Ask your interlocutor how he spent a weekend and go on with some follow up question, and in the most cases you will get a really productive and interesting small talk.
  • Music and art. The famous saying “tastes differ” is applicable to art and music very well. But even, if you don’t share the same interests in this field, you still can talk about it, because this topic is quite comprehensive for most of people and at the same time contains not much risk of confrontation.

Small talk topics to use with caution

  • Sports. At first sight sports as a small talk topic looks completely safe. This is something sports fans can talk about even if there are no shared interests. But as sports sometimes implies a lot of hazards and even confrontation between the fans of competing teams, one should use this topic carefully. Don`t forget NOT to blame and criticize your interlocutor`s favourite team and NOT to praise a rival team.
  • Food. Food is another nice topic for a small talk, because everybody of us eats something every day. You may wonder what may be the pitfalls behind discussing food. In fact, they may take place. The holy war between meat-eaters and vegetarians can have unpredictable consequences. So, before starting a small talk about food it is better to be aware of your interlocutor`s food preferences. If you have already known that your conversation partner prefers something different from you, just treat the other person’s position with respect and you`ll be fine.
  • Hobbies. Hobbies are a good and completely safe topic for discussion, but there are so many hobbies in the world around us that the probability that you both have the same passion is very low. If you know nothing about another person`s hobby, the discussion may stall very quickly. Another shortcoming is that you may look silly if you`re not an expert in this field. But on the other hand, if you have a shared interest with the other person, this topic is your key to better relationships and trust. You may spend hours not only talking about your hobby, but also actively participating in some activities together.
  • Family. Family is an ambiguous topic for a talk. Some people share information about their families willingly, others prefer not to reveal any details. I believe that discussing families implies close relationships between the interlocutors. Anyway, I would suggest not to be the first who touches this topic. If you see that the other person shares a lot of details about his family with passion, then you may be safe asking questions like “How is your son doing?” etc.
  • Traditions. Traditions definitely fit very well for a small talk discussion when both talkers belong to the same culture and share the same viewpoints. But if you`re of different cultures, you should be very careful in order not to offend other person. On the other hand, if you show your sincere interest in some customs adopted in other culture, I think your interlocutor will share some information with pleasure.
  • Work. Work is a tricky topic for a small talk. If you work on the same project it may seem that discussing the work during a small talk is not a good idea, because it will look more like a business meeting than a small talk. But in reality this happens quite often because work is a guaranteed common topic for the coworkers, and I see nothing bad in it. However, if you work on different projects or at different departments, you may definitely ask where the other person works or how it is going on his work. Please, keep in mind that there are some forbidden questions when it comes to discussing work during a small talk, such as salary, relationships with the boss and other colleagues etc.
  • Compliments. Compliments are good when they are understood correctly by those to whom they are addressed. But they significantly disservice you when they failed. The compliment said in a wrong moment, in a wrong form or misunderstood by the recipient may break your relationships. The other side may take your compliment as a flattery or even as a sexual harassment if you`re talking to a person of a different gender. That’s why you should be very careful in choosing the proper words for the compliments in a small talk and think about how the other party may perceive it.

Forbidden topics for a small talk

  • Health conditions. I believe it’s ill-mannered to ask other person about his health unless this person is your relative or a close friend. At the same time it’s also not good to complain about your poor physical condition to a person whom you slightly know. Not all people are able and ready to sympathize you. Believe me, your interlocutor also has problems and they may be even worse than yours.
  • Politics. Politics is a very volatile topic. I was a witness of a number of discussions on politics and I can’t recall any that created a positive atmosphere and lead to some positive outcome. The problem is that people start discussing politics only when they are unhappy with the current state of affairs, so there is some tension present from the beginning of the talk. And if the other party has different political views, this tension will increase and may escalate to a confrontation.
  • Religion. Religion is very similar to traditions when it comes to a small talk discussion topics. But the difference is that people are more sensitive as for faith. When you touch religion topics you deal with beliefs, not points of view. If beliefs are different, it may lead to a confrontation, especially if interlocutors are not able to accept other religions.
  • Personal life. This implies your sexual life and relationships with your partner. Indeed, everything what happens to you in your private life should be kept between you and your partner. There is no reason for others to be aware about this, much less to give any advice.
  • Gossiping. Gossiping is bad in any situation and that’s it. When you afford gossipping in a working environment, the negative consequences may be severe. First, remember that nothing said stays hidden for a long. If you keep discussing some people behind their back, sooner or later they get to know about it and your professional relationships will be ruined.

Now after we`ve considered the most appropriate (and inappropriate) topics for a small talk let me share some tips that may help you to have a productive and nice conversation.

Small talk tips and tricks

  • Ask open ended questions. Open ended questions are vital for a small talk, because they encourage people to talk more. It doesn’t mean that you can`t start with some simple question that requires just “yes” or “no” answer. But in this case you should definitely follow up with open ended question to continue the discussion.
  • Get clues from what you see. Your physical environment is always a safe bet. Look around for something worth commenting on – the architecture, an interesting piece of artwork, the song that’s playing, etc. and start your conversation with the question related to this.
  • Show genuine interest in other person. Most people enjoy talking about themselves. They like sharing their experience and their achievements. Try to focus your question on the personality of your interlocutor and I bet you`ll have a long and productive small talk. Just try not to be buddy-buddy.
  • Practice active listening. Active listening implies not just listening carefully to your communication partner, but also providing some feedback on what you`ve just heard. In the most primitive way it may take a form of nodding and exclaiming something like “Hmm, interesting!”. But the better way to provide feedback is to ask follow-up questions and sharing some personal experience on the topic discussed.
  • Focus on common topics. To keep a small talk alive it makes sense to build a conversation about the topic you both are interested in. A technique of a bicycle wheel suggested by Jeff Callahan on Quora may be helpful at this point. In the middle you have a hub (the current topic) and around that hub, you’ve got spokes (other topics) that radiate out.
  • Keep things positive. Positive mood helps creating traction and interest. Although, sometimes complaining can keep the talk going, don`t forget that your goal is to build rapport and connection with the person you`re talking to, not just waste some time with meaningless complaints.

Small talk is a good way to get to know your colleagues and partners better and to build trust between you and them. Though, it is a big challenge to be the first to start a small talk, the result of this effort will definitely pay you off. As nobody can be an expert in anything from the start, you definitely need some experience to become good in small talking. I personally set a goal for myself to try to start a small talk whenever it’s possible and reasonable. Frankly speaking, not all of my efforts are successful, but the more I practice, the easier it is to do.

What about you? Do you practice small talks? Please, share your ideas or tips in comments.

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