Where some people used to rely on churches and community activities to shape their identity, Perth communications coach Bethan Winn, says that often we now rely on our workplace.
“Small talk is not just a fluffy part of business – it has this real world outcome.”
“From a mental health perspective, anxiety and depression can be lessened through interaction with people and that sense of belonging and community,” she says.
“Most of us spend so long at work, so it’s worth investing in those relationships.”
Start with the things that didn’t matter in lockdown
The weather and the traffic have always been standard small talk go-tos and Lunin says they continue to be easy openers, especially since they’re a bit novel for many of us.
“[Look for something] topical – perhaps you start with a story about how your backyard looks like a swimming pool because of all the rain we’ve had this season,” says Lunin, who is also director of communications and leadership consultancy Mojologic.
“You might segue the conversation to business-related topics about your industry, the world of your clients or a big announcement in the company you work for.”
The classic Monday question, “How was your weekend?” can be another easy ice-breaker.
“Shift the spotlight so it’s not about you – focus on them and ask them questions,” Winn says.
If silence terrifies you into over-sharing or putting your foot in your mouth, Lunin suggests asking a question and actually waiting for the response.
“For the people who hate silence, you need to practise becoming comfortable with it right after you ask a good question,” she says.
“The people that are naturally chatty need to make sure they’re asking enough questions and drawing other people into the conversation [so] it’s not just all about them.”
Winn urges people to ask plenty of questions but stop if someone looks uncomfortable. She likes to test the conversation waters by offering small self-disclosures.
“You can give little breadcrumbs to see if the other person [responds],” she says.
“So you might say, ‘I go for the Dockers!’ and the risk is that they say, ‘That’s awful’ or ‘I hate football’ but only by taking those little risks and giving those self-disclosures can we start to show that we’re human and we have a life outside of work.”
And if you’re later kicking yourself for a controversial comment or misreading the room, go easy on yourself.
“You can obsess over something you said and think, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t have said it’ or ‘Maybe I shouldn’t have said it that way’ [but] I can almost guarantee you that the other person has forgotten about it,” Lunin says.
“You could check in with some trusted mates to see what they think … but chances are, you’re just experiencing a little bit of self-doubt because we’re not as used to [small talk] as we used to be. Remember, most people like the people who will chat and carry the conversation.”
“We didn’t realise how much we were missing when we were in our COVID cave.”
Productivity will return
While it might not be as easy to work uninterrupted in the office, Lunin reassures us that we will soon strike the right balance of small talk and productivity.
“I think we didn’t realise how much we were missing when we were in our COVID cave – the non-verbal communication and the ability to connect with eye contact. But I think it’ll settle down.”
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