After over a year of interacting with colleagues and clients through a computer screen, many people are anxious about returning to the office and having to make small talk again.
“It will take time to get used to having these conversations in person and that's OK,” said Akash Karia, speaker and author of Small Talk Hacks, who is based in Hong Kong. “You will mess up and have those awkward silences, but don't feel bad — you will learn throughout that process.”
If you’re worried about the return of small talk, try implementing these five tips for getting comfortable talking to others in professional settings again.
Focus on connection over perfection. Getting caught up in how others perceive you can sabotage your ability to connect with others. Rather than worrying about saying the right thing, Karia recommended easing the pressure on yourself and going into conversations with a sense of curiosity.
“If you focus on being genuinely curious about the other person's life, rather than the fear of saying the wrong thing, you'll find it's much easier to have a conversation,” Karia said.
It can also be helpful to remember that other people are likely not paying much attention to you because they’re typically worried about themselves.
“Sometimes people feel like the spotlight is entirely on them,” said Marla Genova of Socially Speaking LLC, a social and public-speaking anxiety coach based in Farmington, Connecticut. “When people get tunnel vision and start feeling anxiety, they don't realise people are not paying as much attention to them as they think.”
Instead of fixating on yourself, Genova recommended focusing on your audience and the message you want to convey. And if you’re feeling anxious or rusty, feel free to admit that, because chances are you’re not alone.
Ask open-ended questions that elicit positive responses. It has been a rough year, and many people are tired of talking about depressing topics. Karia suggested asking questions that require your conversational partner to think about interesting and positive experiences from their life.
“When we have a conversation, we want to be uplifted and feel happy, especially when we leave the interaction,” Karia said. “You might ask them about something interesting they’ve been working on over the past couple of months, or where they’re most looking forward to going on holiday when the world gets back to some level of normalcy.”
He also recommended asking open-ended questions, rather than something that only requires a one-word response. For example, instead of asking, “How was your weekend?”, try asking, “What was the most interesting part of your weekend?”
Use your surroundings. The environment you’re in offers valuable conversation material, according to Karia. If you're struggling with what exactly to say, one technique is to look around for potential conversation starters.
For example, if you notice a book on your colleague’s desk, you could say, “That looks interesting. What’s it about?”
“You can look at your surroundings and leverage that to have a conversation, but I think the important point here is to be curious about the other person and just focus on forming authentic relationships,” Karia said.
Share something small but personal about yourself. Small talk has a reputation for being a waste of time and breath, but these small interactions can actually be the building blocks for deeper connections.
Karia recommended sharing something small but meaningful about yourself during these conversations. For example, you could share that you recently switched careers, just took up a new hobby, or had a baby.
“Anything you feel was a rich and positive experience in your life that has taken place over the last couple of months is a good thing to share because it helps create that authentic conversation,” Karia said. “It also gives your conversational partner the opportunity to share something personal about themselves.”
By offering up a nugget of vulnerability, you’re opening a door for the other person to do the same.
Take advantage of available tools and resources. If you’re hoping to brush up on your social skills before returning to the office, online and offline resources are available.
Genova recommended joining a group on Meetup.com, participating in a Toastmasters International education program, connecting with a Speaking Circles facilitator in your area, or hiring a public-speaking coach to prepare for a return to the office. Books and videos also can help you improve your small talk skills.
— Hannah Pitstick is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.