One Skill You Need to Master to Get Ahead at Work

The Office, small talk

Dwight Schrute of The Office moves the water cooler to his desk for small talk | NBC

It’s time to stop the witch hunt against small talk. Many people believe the chitchat around the water cooler is pointless babble, but in fact it can be vital to achieving your career goals. Research is showing that the first impressions you make in a job interview — often with those exchanges about the weather or the office space — can be extremely important for the interview’s success.

You might not think it’s that important to be able to talk to a co-worker or potential client about their hobbies, sports interests, or how they got to where they are in their career. And while the topics themselves might not be earth-shattering, the conversation itself is incredibly important, many career experts say. “The communication of ideas or information is secondary, almost incidental; the speech is mainly meant to serve the purpose of social bonding,” writes David Roberts, Vox columnist and self-proclaimed failure at small talk.

In a nutshell, the reason so many people likely claim that they hate small talk is because they believe they’re not good at it. I shy away from small talk at all costs. I’d much rather be in a coffee shop having an in-depth conversation with one good friend than face a conference room of professionals for “networking.” Blech. However, think about how those close relationships you have with confidants and colleagues formed in the first place. In all likelihood, it was with a conversation about the weather. Or your mutual love for sweet potato tots at the bar, or your undying devotion for the Chicago Cubs (and will they actually have a shot at the pennant this year?)

The truth is, almost every good relationship you have formed in the nascent stage of small talk. And if you want to succeed in your job, you’re most likely going to need to rely on it for years to come. Still think it’s the worst thing since spam emails? Here are a few tips to change your perspective, and make you master in no time.

1. Think of small talk as a skill

Shot of mixed race young people sitting at a table

Group of people networking | iStock.com/Jacob Ammentorp Lund

Chances are, you’ve trained for several years to be good at your job. And if you’re hoping to advance, you’re still looking for ways to improve your skills. It’s becoming more apparent that employers value soft skills almost as much — if not more — than your ability to make a spreadsheet or close a sale. Guess what? Small talk is a soft skill — which means it is possible to make it less cringe-worthy than when you aren’t prepared and your mind is racing with thoughts of, “What do I say? How do I connect with this person? Where’s the nearest exit?”

The reality is, people like to work with others whom they already have something in common with. The easiest way to find common ground with potential clients or colleagues is through small talk. “Small talk is the appetizer for any relationship,” Debra Fine, author of The Fine Art of Small Talk, told Fast Company. “A good networker is looking to foster relationships and build a community never knowing how that contact can help now or in the future.”

2. Start simple

Like most skills, you start with the basics. On his blog I Will Teach You to Be Rich, Ramit Sethi gives some incredibly easy ways to begin, including, “Hi. How is your morning going?” and “Hi. I don’t think we’ve met. I’m Ramit.” Sethi asks us to notice how easy and ordinary the openings are. “The truth is, we’re not searching for magic words. We’re simply looking for a way to connect and build rapport,” he writes.

By now you probably realize that small talk is the social currency of success at work. But that doesn’t mean you should put a ton of pressure on yourself — or those conversations — in order to see results. In fact, having lowered expectations about those types of conversations will make you more relaxed. As a result, you’re more likely to be enjoyable to be around. Ironically, those lowered expectations might in turn lead to a better conversation.

“If you come to cocktail hour hoping for nothing more than a good restaurant or book recommendation, you can relax and enjoy yourself, and be pleasantly surprised by anything else that happens,” Fast Company advises.

3. Practice in low-stress situations

Barista and his customer discussing something with smile

Barista and a customer making conversation | iStock.com/g-stockstudio

Confidence is key in many work situations, and pulling off engaging small talk is no different. This might be the downfall of introverts like myself: I don’t believe people would want to talk to me in the first place, let alone discuss anything I might ask. However, it’s time to move past that line of thought. “The hardest part isn’t having something to say. It’s having the confidence to actually do it,” Sethi advises.

To build that confidence, Sethi suggests practicing your small talk skills in low-key environments, such as with your coffee barista or the clerk at the grocery store. Ask a light question or two (like about their job role, their preferred drink order, etc.), and make sure you’re listening to their responses. Ask follow-up questions while they ring up your order. Violà! You’ve succeeded at small talk.

If you’re going into a networking event or other situation where small talk is guaranteed, Fine suggests practicing your answer to “How are you?” with interesting anecdotes or at least something more engaging than, “Fine, how are you?”

4. Have a purpose

When you are ready to give successful small talk a try, go into it with a general purpose — or at least a positive outlook, Forbes contributor Christina Park suggests. “Thoughts tend to be self-fulfilling. If you approach small talk with the belief that it will be dull and pointless, it probably will,” she writes. Focus on the benefits, and have a few general questions in mind.

Introverts are classically known to avoid and/or hate small talk like the plague. But those same people are often fantastic listeners, and also tend to be curious. Use those traits to your advantage, Park writes, by listening carefully to someone’s answers and following up with thoughtful questions. If you’re genuinely curious about something, this will be much easier. The added benefit of asking those extra questions is that the spotlight will stay on the other person, but you’ll also give the impression that you genuinely care about what they have to say. Going forward, this will only help to improve a potential working relationship — whether it’s a co-worker, boss, or client.

In addition, think of topics you’re already comfortable with and know something about, suggests Sue Thompson, a personality and business etiquette training expert. “Use a three-month rule: Start with topics on which you can generate conversation having to do with something you’ve done in the past three months or are planning to do in the next three months,” Thompson told CNN. You’ll be comfortable talking about a hobby or upcoming project, which will naturally draw others into the conversation.

Extra resources

close up of abstract network molecules

Network | iStock.com

Of course, it’s difficult to imagine these small talk conversations when you’re not standing in a room full of people you don’t know, or you’re not walking past the break room for lunch. Luckily, there are plenty of resources available to help you practice ahead of time, and have a few questions in your pocket.

For example, another Fast Company article provides a few general questions that could help you in a networking situation. They’ll help you connect with people in a similar field, but also provide a way to move the topic away from work and help to make common ground elsewhere. Muse provides topics of conversation for pretty much any situation. And finally, Foward Motion gives you some ideas for how to move a conversation past a yes/no sort of answer — even if you don’t follow a sports team or have an interest in the topic you’re asked about.

After a while, starting a conversation from thin air won’t feel like such a chore — and you won’t need canned questions to help you out. At that point, you’ll know you’re mastering the skill on your own.

Follow Nikelle on Twitter @Nikelle_CS and Facebook.

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