Small Talk – why it’s an essential part of working from home

People don’t remember what you said or even what you did, but they always remember how you made them feel.’ Maya Angelou

When meeting colleagues or clients on-line (or face to face), the initial stage in creating effective working relationships is to build rapport.  The first step in building rapport is to engage in what’s mistakenly known as ‘small talk’.

Small talk is essential as it’s the principal way to get to know and deepen your knowledge of your colleagues, clients and other stakeholders.  Small talk means getting on their wavelength, finding out what you have in common and sharing personal information about yourself.  This will only be effective if you genuinely regard them as fellow human beings rather than ‘things’ who are only there to help you get your work done or give you a sales contract.  

Initial impressions count.

As you build rapport with the others you start to relax.  The initial tentativeness that usually accompanies a new relationship gives way to feelings of openness, compatibility, harmony, mutual understanding, trust and easy communication.

You can probably think of certain individuals with whom you felt an instant connection, right from the first meeting – almost as though you had known them for years.  Perhaps you hit it off instantly because they approached you in an open, friendly way and took a genuine interest in getting to know you.  Or perhaps you have met other people for the first time and nevertheless have soon felt relaxed in their company.  What can you learn from these encounters?  

It is important to be genuinely interested in the other person and not go through some mechanistic routine before ‘getting down to the real work’.  Small talk is an integral part of the real work.

If you find it difficult engaging with a person for the first time why not model yourself on someone you know who is a master in the art of small talk and building rapport?  This is not about slavishly copying someone else.  It’s important to be authentic and stay true to yourself.  What aspects of their behaviours and ways of being would you feel comfortable integrating into your own style?  

Building rapport, and at following meetings renewing rapport, requires conversational skills – an ability to initiate and participate in small talk – an expected prerequisite before moving on to the task in hand.  

Typical topics are sport, local events and places, a major TV series, traffic congestion and, particularly with the British, the weather!  You can often ask questions about an object you spot in the person’s workspace e.g. a photograph of a beautiful landscape or sporting activity or business award certificate.  These visuals can provide prompts for some opening questions. Over time you learn how to choose safe topics for this kind of conversation – you may even remember being forewarned earlier in your life – ‘no politics or religion’.

If you find small talk difficult, please remember that it does not mean you have to do all the talking.  Small talk mainly involves encouraging the other person to talk.  Ask open questions i.e. ones that necessitate more than a yes / no answer.  If you give the other person your undivided attention your follow up questions will pop up quite naturally.  Also, and it’s worth repeating, learn from your colleagues who excel at this.  Remember the type of questions they ask and notice how it makes the following business conversation easier.

Before you read further, think of a colleague or a client where the relationship is not as good as it could be.  Is it because you bi-passed the stage of building rapport?  What limited risks could you take to disclose more information about your personal life and your work?

If you make the effort to remember people’s names this becomes a major asset – as Dale Carnegie said, ‘Everyone’s favourite word is their name.’

Here’s a tip:  When you meet a person for the first time ensure that you have heard their name correctly.  They often mumble their name.  Say something like ‘Is that Ann with or without the ‘e’ or ‘Is it Jackie or Jacqui’?  This helps ensure that you spell the person’s name correctly when you write to them.  Repetition also helps you remember their name.

When you meet someone on a second – and subsequent – occasions being able to recall their name helps enormously in maintaining rapport.  To aid your memory, you could enter key information about the person in your contacts list e.g. ‘went to XY College, enjoys horse riding’.

In conclusion, building and maintaining rapport is the initial and essential stage in creating and maintaining good team working and effective client relations.  The very first step in rapport building is engaging in small talk or, from now on, let’s call it ‘essential talk’!

Article requested by the Entrepreneur Magazine

Richard Fox  is founder of The Learning Corporation – a pan-European firm and author of new book Making Relationships Work at Work – a toolkit for getting more done with less stress available June, priced £15.99