Small talk is inevitable, no matter where you work — you're expected to make it with customers, colleagues and vendors. Although this chitchat can feel awkward, it's a great way to break the ice and build relationships. By mastering the art of casual conversation, you can sail through long elevator rides, networking events and office holiday parties with ease.
Questions are the perfect fodder for small talk. They make you seem interested and engaged, which can help set the other person at ease. If you're chatting with a colleague in the elevator, try asking, "How's project X going?" or "Do you have any exciting weekend plans?" To strike up a conversation with a stranger at a conference, use questions to make a connection: "What did you think of the keynote speaker?" or even, "I love your laptop bag. Where did you get it?" To keep the conversation going, try open-ended questions — this paves the way for longer answers that can spark fascinating discussions.
Offer Conversational Hooks
One way to hold up your end of the conversation is to offer hooks — interesting bits of information that can give the other person something to pursue. Instead of saying "no" when someone asks if you're going to the office happy hour, you might say, "Not this week. I'm running my first triathlon tomorrow, and I need all the sleep I can get." This answer gives the other person a variety of options to continue the conversation, and helps you move quickly past the uncomfortable beginning stages of small talk.
When you're nervous about small talk, it can be tempting to wade right into hot-button territory. Before you blurt out your opinions about the latest election, think twice. A comment that seems innocuous to you could be offensive to the other person, which automatically cuts the conversation short. In general, it's a good idea to avoid topics such as politics and religion. If you do find yourself discussing an emotionally charged topic, keep it professional and respectful. That way, you don't need to worry about causing offense or accidentally alienating a colleague.
Asking for advice is a great way to start a casual conversation. If you're having lunch with colleagues at a new job, try asking, "Have you eaten here before? What dishes can you recommend?" While you're waiting for a meeting to start, try, "I know you've worked for client X before. Do you have any tips for keeping him engaged?" By relying on the other person for help, it makes him feel valued and starts the small talk off on a positive note.
There's no avoiding small talk in a professional setting, but it doesn't have to be uncomfortable. With the right approach, you can start conversations easily — and help your contacts feel more comfortable at the same time.
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