Do you find small talk awkward?  Superficial? Without much substance or integrity? 

If the answer is yes, you're not alone.  Many people struggle making small talk, and a main reason is how awkward, unnatural, and superficial it feels.  But it doesn't have to be that way. 

From years of teaching and training people to make small talk and step outside their comfort zones, I've found that small talk can become an authentic part of your relationship-building repertoire--and something you actually end up enjoying instead of dreading.  The key is to work hard at bringing authenticity into your small talk practice. Here are some tips I've found helpful for doing just that. 

1.  Be present and engaged. 

We've all probably gone through the motions during small talk, saying hello, making a quick comment, giving a quick smile, but with our real attention directed elsewhere--perhaps to the next task we have on our plate or to something else we're concerned about.  But the topics we touch on during small talk can often be quite substantive (like a big upcoming presentation, or a trip abroad, or something about our family or kids), even if we only briefly or lightly touch on them during the conversation itself.  And what's discussed during small talk can set the stage for a future, more in-depth conversation later on.  So, be present and engaged during small talk, even if it lasts for only a few moments.  

2.  Probe to find common interests.  

Small talk is a great opportunity for discovery -- about shared interests you might have with another person; about what's important to them. But you can only probe these deeper levels if you dig a little deeper. Consider, for example, the following conversation as you're standing in line for food in the company cafeteria with a colleague who I'll call Rob.

You: Can you believe these lines?

Rob:  I know. I usually come much earlier than this and it's typically empty.

Now, if you end the conversation here, you miss a valuable opportunity to probe deeper and discover interesting information and a potential connection. And that's why it's so critical to probe deeper with smart follow-up questions. For example, you might follow up with:

You: What time do you usually come?

Rob:  Around 11 a.m.  I actually start work really early--like around 5 a.m. because I'm on the phone with Japan and need to contact them during their business hours.

Aha--now, you're in business.  You have just learned something about Rob: his connection to Japan.  And perhaps you have a connection to Japan as well.  Or perhaps you're genuinely interested in Rob's work with Japan and would like to learn more.  The overall point here is that you'll never be able to find these potential points of mutual interest unless you probe.

3. Treat small talk moments as investments for the future. 

Imagine you happen to have a quick small talk conversation with a colleague about a presentation she's making later in the day.  And then you happen to see that same colleague later and ask her how the presentation went.  Right there you've build a little bond.  You show that you care about her work and remember something meaningful to her. The point here is that conversations--even little micro ones--can be woven together to build the tapestry of a personal connection and relationship. 

In the end, with these tips in mind, you can transform small talk from being an awkward burden to a potential gateway for meaningful conversations and relationships.

Published on: Mar 6, 2018
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.