Small talk – how and why I should engage?

Small talk has a bad reputation. 

It feels dreary and unimportant especially when there is so much going on in the world worthy of our deeper conversation. 

But, whilst the subject matter might not cover life-changing topics it’s the connections where we really see the benefits.

Covid removed many of these connection opportunities – we’re not just talking around the office but the connections we make every day – ordering coffee, standing in the queue, connecting with the cashier.  And whilst these may not seem important the practise we get helps us in our business lives as well and according to a study by psychologist Elizabeth Dunn, it creates a feeling of belonging and increased happiness.

Those feelings of happiness help us because we know spontaneous conversations with co-workers improve creativity and spark collaboration and innovation.

Defined by the Cambridge dictionary as “conversation about things that are not important, often between people who do not know each other well.”

Is this all there is to it?

If you google small talk, you’ll be presented with lists of topics that are good (sport, family, food, work etc) and the red flag subjects to avoid such as Money, politics, sex, and death. 

But this list-making does the whole act of small talk a disservice.   Whilst it may not be a ‘put the world to rights’ sort of conversation it builds connection and trust, and it hones our communication skills.

We know business relationships are founded on trust, and the ability to quickly build that with colleagues and potential clients helps us transition into more serious deeper conversations, all from the initial seemingly ‘mundane’ small talk.

 Technology may make it easier than ever for us to avoid “small talk opportunities” but knowing that there are so many benefits how can we increase our skills?

  1. Show a genuine interest in what’s being said. The Queen Consort has become an expert in this by requesting that she isn’t given pages of briefing notes on the people she will meet but allowing conversations to flow, to give her an opportunity for genuine attention and interest in others.


  2. Call the person by their name and ask questions. Using their name helps you remember but also makes the person you’re talking to feel special and important.  Humans love to talk about themselves, so asking questions with their name is a secret power to quickly build trust and rapport in a conversation.
  1. Leave your ego behind and try to avoid the need to sound impressive. Asking for advice from someone is a great way to make a connection and helps the other person feel valued.  Keep yourself open to others’ opinions – small talk isn’t the time for a heated debate. 
  1. Remember the importance of non-verbal signs, smile and nod, and use active listening. During conversations, our brains process a lot of information. It isn’t just what we are saying but our non-verbal language that makes an impact. Whilst you might worry about the strength of your content, it’s your tone, body language, rate of speech and gesticulations that can have almost as much power in building trust and relationships.
  1. Practice helps with honing your skills but if you’re finding yourself anxious, having a few topics or questions up your sleeve can help. It’s always better to stick to topics that interest you and avoid firing questions by being ready with some personal anecdotes that can help get the ball rolling.

You may not be delivering the keynote speech at the annual conference or pitching your biggest contract but it’s true to say that small talk can open doors. Perfecting this art is a communication skill worth having.