Whether you consider yourself good at small talk or not, it's an essential professional skill that can take you surprisingly far in the workplace. In a recent New York Times piece on mastering the art of small talk in the office, writer Lindsay Mannering outlines how to hone your skills.

Have your go-to small topics. 

You're less likely to cringe at small talk if you have some topics at the ready. This piece of advice comes from career coach Jamie Terran, who was interviewed for the Times piece. 

Start by thinking about when you most often get thrown into small talk. Who do you find yourself talking to and in what situations? Now that you've got your audience, set your strategy. Select a few key anecdotes or interesting tidbits you can share. 

Always start with what you are likely to have in common with other people. Don't assume anyone cares about the same sports teams or TV shows as you do. If this is at work, you can commiserate or celebrate something you can both relate to. Remember, keep it light. "Did you see they changed out the candy at the front desk?"

Get good at asking questions.

Pro tip: You don't actually have to talk that much. "We're all ultimately pretty narcissistic at heart," Mannering writes. A great way to kick off a small talk convo is with a question.

Once you hear the answer, probe a little deeper with a follow-up question. If you can keep the other person talking, you're (mostly) off the hook.

What then, to ask? Master interviewer Terry Gross says you only need one question to spark interesting conversations with anyone. Keeping the focus on the other person is a surprisingly effective way to a small talk conversation going strong. 

See it as an opportunity, not a burden. 

You might think mindless chit chat in the workplace is pointless. The reality is that it can change how people perceive you because it's an important step to building trust. From mastering small talk in interviews to schmoozing with executives at work, it could be an in to a promotion or job offer. 

Simply put, it's a good look to interact with your colleagues. It makes you better known around the office and you'll come off as more likeable. This doesn't mean you have to have drawn-out conversations with every person you pass in the hallway at work.

Yet if you find yourself fidgeting awkwardly in silence next to someone -- say before a meeting starts or as you're waiting in line to grab coffee -- use the opportunity to chat. What's the worst that could happen? The conversation will be over soon enough and you can head back to your desk. ​

Published on: Sep 23, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.