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A free E-zine from Communication Excellence Institute, dedicated to improving communication in the professional workplace.

Here at CEI, we’re excited about sharing more practical information about good communication. Hope you’ll continue to follow our People Skills for Skilled People articles and give us feedback on how they’ve helped you.

We hear a frequent complaint that goes like this, “I hate small talk. I don’t do ‘chit-chat’. I avoid the water cooler.” This attitude can often be traced back to a person’s overall temperament, but it’s also part of some larger issues, especially regarding the subject of “office politics.” In this issue, we’ll take a look at making light social conversation and study why...

Small Talk is a BIG DEAL!
Vol. 9, No. 1

Many of our clients have struggled for years with this whole concept. They've achieved high levels of success, but just can’t see why small talk is all that important. In their hearts, they’ll admit it’s a vital part of any person’s professional and personal life. But because they’ve never gotten a handle on it, they often denigrate it, calling it “schmoozing,” “chit-chat,” “water-cooler talk,” and other negative epithets. For professionals like these, here’s the good news: like any other subject, small talk can be studied, learned, and mastered. In other words, you can become competent at making light social conversation!

Before we tackle this tricky subject, though, let’s take a look at some typical beliefs about small talk that keep people from becoming adept at it.

OLD BELIEF #1: Communication = conveying information only

We live in an information-intensive, information-overloaded world. Because of this, most professional people have relied heavily on impersonal modes of communication, seeing communication as purely a matter of conveying substantive information and data. This is particularly true in highly technical professions. If you’re an engineer, your world is full of designs, metrics, schedules, problems, etc. If you’re an accountant, you communicate statistics, opportunities, risks, tax information, etc. And if you’re a corporate lawyer, you immerse yourself in legal constraints, contracts, court documents, etc. Technical professionals spend so much of their time through the years busying themselves with the nuts and bolts of their careers that they spend proportionately little time cultivating relationships.

OLD BELIEF #2: “I hate office politics!”

You’ll never get good at small talk as long as you hold this attitude. Politics in organizations of all kinds is a permanent reality, and you ignore it at your peril. Good managers know to respect the pockets of influence throughout all levels of the organization chart, and to use that information strategically.

OLD BELIEF #3: “Small talk is a waste of time”

This is totally NOT true! Small talk is vital for building rapport with others. If you don’t have rapport with the person you’re talking to, you’ll spend far more time and energy communicating your ideas, if you communicate them at all.

While these views are widely held, they are by no means insurmountable obstacles to learning how to cultivate small talk.

Just as we’ve looked at some beliefs that need changing, let’s look at some new beliefs anyone can adopt, if they want to become proficient at communication.

NEW BELIEF #1: All communication exists on two levels at once

What highly technical people need to understand is that communication contains two components that run parallel through every communication encounter: task AND relationship. The relationship affects how a person receives the message content. Let me explain.

While information has to be conveyed in most conversations, things like tone of voice, gesturing, displayed energy, eye contact, and other nonverbal cues carry a huge impact on how we perceive the other person’s attitudes toward us and toward their subject matter. Whenever you’ve sat through a presentation delivered with low energy and little overt enthusiasm, you’ve most likely assumed (ironically often incorrectly) that the speaker is committed to neither the topic nor you, the audience member. That’s because you’re reading the nonverbal cues that look like disinterest, and that’s influencing your ability to hear the speaker’s message. Communication always conveys task AND relationship, and relationship is established first.

NEW BELIEF #2: “I don’t like office politics, but I respect that it exists”

Smart managers know that they need to become competent at office politics. For example, who has the CEO’s ear? Who influences support staff most? Recognize the political players at work, and be sure they are on board with your ideas. When communicating organizational change, for example, savvy leaders rely on front-line supervisors, not line managers, to announce the changes to the troops. If you can get buy-in at that level, the informal power network will help spread cooperation throughout the entire organization.

NEW BELIEF #3: “Small talk is a critical component of effective communication”

Small talk builds relationships. To be a truly effective communicator, you should recognize when a situation calls for small talk, and when it calls for a more task-oriented conversation. Receptions and trade shows (especially in the exhibit hall) are naturals for small talk. You must know how to banter with someone so that you can build enough of a positive relationship that the person will then transition to listening to you explain your product or service. Nothing is worse at an exhibit booth than a person who is not competent at small talk.

As a starting point for turning the corner on small talk, let’s set out some ideas that should encourage you to perfect this fine art.

  1. Remember: you have lots more information to use for small talk than you realize. Draw on your life experiences. Keep up with the news. Read a lot. Become more intellectually curious. For more on this topic, click on this link to our PSSP article “Thinking on Your Feet While Keeping Them Out of Your Mouth!”

  2. Don’t feel you need to out-talk others in a small talk session, especially at first as you’re learning the basics of small talk. Put your toe in the water by showing interest when you’re not talking. Learn to “track” a conversation, as it moves from person to person. Give verbal acknowledgment responses (“yes,” “u-huh,” “I never thought of it that way,” “that’s fascinating,” etc.). Listen for openings where you can say something to move the conversation forward. Affirm and validate what others say. And most important of all, react to what others say and do. Effective small talk dies with lack of reaction.

  3. Ask more questions and make fewer statements. Don’t interrogate others, but do ask things like “How do you mean?” when you want additional information. Use questions to move someone’s story along, such as “And then what did you do?” Above all, use questions and statements to discover others’ interests and attitudes. Dale Carnegie once wrote, “Talk to a man or woman about themselves, and they’ll listen for hours.”

  4. Make the most of your nonverbal communication. Realize that you’re always “on” in small-group conversations. Keep great eye contact with your listeners (concentrate on the “color” of their eyes to make comfortable warm eye contact for you and them). Lean in toward them, while keeping a comfortable distance from them. Use “palms-up” and other open gestures.

  5. Reaffirm in your mind that all effective communication is “other-directed.” Good communicators agree that if you want to build rapport with someone or communicate your ideas to that person, you need to be less concerned about your feelings and attitudes and more focused on how the other person is perceiving you. This is especially true when you have that one opportunity to make a first impression. Adept professionals always make sure they have their act together so as to look most favorable in others’ eyes. For more on this, see our PSSP article “All Effective Communication is Other-Directed” at:

  6. Don’t “diss” office politics; learn how they operate and use them to your advantage! A cardinal rule for developing a keen political ear is to recognize one simple, yet complex and eternal, fact: nobody ever thinks he or she is wrong. Even if you want to disagree with someone, learn how to do it politely by first affirming something the other person said. Example: “I can see how that must have looked to you, and I don’t blame you for taking that position. I just honestly don’t think Suzi would mean it that way.” Everybody needs to have his or her ego protected, even if that person isn’t present (see our PSSP “Guard Their Egos” at: Please remember that information cannot be contained. The informal power network makes sure that your comments get back to the person you were referring to. Therefore, never inject anything into small talk that belittles or denigrates any individual or group.

  7. Project energy and stay in the moment. Never “drop out” of a conversation because you don’t like or know about the current subject under discussion. I personally know nothing about sports, so when that topic comes up, I say little, but project a lot of bodily interest. Inside, I’m saying, “How ‘bout them Lakers!” and laughing when everyone else does.

As you practice these techniques, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by others’ favorable reactions to you. You’ll prove to yourself that small talk literally makes you a person of greater value to others—someone others want to be around.

And the best news of all is that small talk can be mastered!

Yours in good communication,

Jan & Neal Palmer

P.S. The topic of small talk comes up very frequently in our one-on-one consulting with executives and other professionals, technical and otherwise. These highly skilled, high-achieving people are often stumped by starting and/or participating in small group social banter. They struggle with making casual non-content conversation, giving criticism and compliments, speaking at conferences and exhibitions, motivating employees, and anything that pertains to connecting and building relationships with colleagues.

Many professionals like these have found our Executive Communication Program to be highly beneficial for cultivating the art of small talk. This three 3-hour session program, conducted by both of us, is thoroughly customized to each participant. They learn and practice making light social conversation until it becomes second nature. They also learn how to handle dicey situations and speak in front of groups of any size.

For 25 years, the Executive Communication Program has helped hundreds of professionals polish their communication skills. For more information about this intensive program, please click on the following link:


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