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  • Writer's pictureJoseph Williams

5 tips for making small talk at work

In today’s disparate workforce, making connections with colleagues and building relationships is more important than ever. This means that making small talk is difficult to avoid. Zoom meetings, networking events, and even being in the line for coffee if you're working in an office may require a brief exchange of pleasantries with co-workers.


As far as conversation starters go, there's plenty of value in knowing how to make small talk, even though it has a bad reputation for being superficial—so much so that some people avoid it at all costs. But suppose you can make small talk meaningful and genuine (read: not about the weather). In that case, it can be the starting ground for a new relationship and maybe even a meaningful professional contact.


You come across networking opportunities daily, and you don’t know where they could lead. Making casual conversation is a simple way to fill 25 seconds of silence and might lead to new contact.


Follow these tips for devising conversation starters and learning the basics of how to make small talk so you can practice your networking skills whether you’re at the dentist’s office, on a first date, or, yes, even at a job interview.


Acknowledge and manage your anxiety

If you're like me, small talk can give you anxiety, ranging from slight apprehension to debilitating dread. This is more common that you think. A friend told me recently that he hides in the bathroom or fiddles with his phone to avoid idle chitchat. To curb your anxiety, stay rational and positive. To get started, before you enter the space you're going to, whether online or in person, and tell yourself any of the following and re

  • “This anxiety is coming from me and my beliefs, not the situation. I can do this.”

  • “What’s the worse that can happen? If they don’t like me, so what?”

  • “Just because it didn't go well in the past, doesn’t mean it will happen again.”

  • "No one here wants me to fail. I'm in a safe place."

  • "Labels don't define me. I'm an interesting, worthy person with a lot to contribute."

  • "Everyone needs someone to talk to at networking events. If I strike up a conversation with that person, they will probably be glad to have someone to talk to."


Face your fear

Believe it or not, most people don't enjoy making small talk with strangers. It can be intimidating for anyone to start a conversation out of nothing and keep it going—especially if you have some degree of social anxiety.

If you’re someone who truly really doesn't like making conversation with people you don't know, try understanding why you don’t like small talk. Are you afraid of what the other person might think of you? Are you worried it will be awkward? Are you uninterested in speaking to someone that you might never see again? Once you know why you dislike making small talk, you can devise an action plan to overcome your fear or avoidance.

If you worry you’ll embarrass yourself by saying something awkward, remember that it won’t seem like a big deal for long. I have autism, which sometimes translates to very frank observations mid conversation. But I've learnt to acknowledge that when it happens and laugh about it. What’s the worst thing that can happen? You don’t talk again, or they whisper about your encounter? You’ll get over it.

And if you think talking to strangers is totally pointless, ask your friends about any experiences they’ve had where a casual conversation sparked a valuable relationship so you’ll have something to inspire you.

Create a plan to start casual conversation

Finding the courage to make the first move is hard, but someone’s got to do it. The person you’re speaking with probably doesn’t want to deal with the awkward silence either. Go ahead and break the ice.

Work out a 30-second introduction that you can use on anyone, anywhere. It doesn't even have to be about work. Use your hobbies and passions as a jumping-off point. Pets, holidays and kids tend to be failsafe topics.

This doesn’t mean you walk up to someone and immediately introduce yourself with this personal pitch. That's not how to make small talk. Start by showing interest in them: why they’re there, what they think of, whatever common experience you’re sharing, and once the focus shifts to you, you’ll have a personal pitch at the ready.

If you’re making small talk with someone who may have professional potential, you can weave in your elevator pitch too, but try to start personal because that’s where the fertile common ground may be to create a foundation for something more.

Ask open-ended questions

Questions are excellent conversation starters. But not if the answer is yes, maybe or no. Whether in a larger group or a one-on-one conversation, if being the one doing the talking first makes you cringe, shift the focus to the person you don’t know, or someone that seems more extraverted than you and ask some questions, so the conversation doesn’t come to a screeching halt. Some people tend to love talking about themselves and feel flattered someone takes an interest in them. If you're at an event, try these small talk questions:

  • What brings you to this event?

  • What's sparked your interest so far?

  • Any particular panel or speaker you recommend?

Along with asking questions, listen to people's responses. Don't just wait for them to stop talking so you can jump into your own story, similar to what they just told you. Ask follow-up questions:

  • That's so cool. Can you tell me more about that?

  • I understand. Something like that happened to me. What did you do next?

  • What is it about that topic that interests you?

Volleying off what people share will help you get into a conversational flow like the one you’d have with a friend, leading to a more memorable conversation. Don't ask one question, and move on. Asking a follow-up helps leave a more lasting impression on the person—they'll remember that you engaged them.

Get Lots of Practice

Remember the old saying practice makes perfect? Well, it’s true about mastering conversation starters and learning how to make small talk. And what better way to put your new skills into action than to line up some job interviews? Could you use some help with that? Make a free profile on Clu today. We can set you up with recruiters, send you career advice, and much more.



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