How to sort out your office small talk skills if you're feeling out of practice

You’ve asked them if they did anything nice at the weekend and made a general comment about the weather (hot, isn’t it?)… now what?

If the return to the office has brought with it intense awkwardness and a struggle to chat, you’re certainly not alone.

Months of working from home and social distancing has made many of us forget how to do the basics of office interaction, from speaking up in meetings to the oh-so-tricky by-the-kettle banter.

New research from LinkedIn has found that 84% of young professionals feel ‘out of practice’ when it comes to office life, and 57% of those asked to return to the workplace feel their ability to make conversation has taken a nosedive.

This might seem like a minor annoyance at first, but the truth is that struggling to chat with your coworkers and bosses could have detrimental effects.

How are you supposed to get noticed, make a good impression, and get ahead if chit-chat feels so uncomfortable that you just don’t do it?

‘Small talk is the soft skill that could make a significant difference and lead to big things in the business environment,’ says workplace psychologist Anjula Mutanda. ‘If you’re out of practice, you could be missing out on opportunities.

‘The ability to make small talk is central to connecting with people we work with, essential to succeeding in many office jobs.

‘If we don’t connect with our colleagues we may find it difficult to work well in a team, make our voices heard, receive and give feedback effectively, manage difficult situations, resolve conflicts, manage junior team members and impress our colleagues.’

So, it’s important. How can we sort out our small talk skills and get back on track? Anjula shares her tips ahead.

Ask specific questions

Those super general ‘so, what’s going on?’ can lead to awkward silences as people figure out what to say. Remember – your colleagues are probably feeling just as out of practice, so make things easier with direct, but open questions that give them the opportunity to talk.

If you’re struggling to connect with others, an effective technique is to start by asking open questions,’ Anjula tells Metro.co.uk. ‘Be specific, something like, “What are you working on at the moment”?

Listen to what they’re saying, resist the urge to interrupt with your own anecdotes, and use verbal and non-verbal cues such as nodding, smiling, and saying something like, “I hear what you’re saying”. This creates an atmosphere of collaboration, connection and builds trust.

Listen

Anjula says: ‘Often when we listen we don’t actually hear what the other person is saying, we can sometimes be more focussed on getting our own point across.’

People can tell when your eyes have glazed over and you’re just nodding along until it’s your turn to speak.

Actively listen. Be interested in what people have to say.

Have some topics up your sleeve

Getting back into the habit of small talk can be daunting. What if the chat grinds to a sudden halt? What if I say the wrong thing?

The best way to boost your confidence is to be prepared – have an arsenal of topics and questions you can bring up if there’s ever an awkward moment.

‘When meeting new colleagues, simply introduce yourself and invite them to do the same, ask what they work on and how long they’ve been there,’ suggests Anjula. ‘You can then try to find some common ground on non-work subjects e.g. asking whether they’ve tried the new coffee shop/cafe, whether they watched the big match, the latest TV box set, or if they’ve got holidays coming up.

‘These lighter subjects will often find a common ground and get a wider circle chatting.’

Be kind

‘Small acts of kindness will go a mile, make you feel part of the team and boost your confidence,’ Anjula says. ‘The most obvious and universally well received – offering to get the tea round in!

‘Research shows these acts not only benefit the receiver but also make the giver feel good and can socially bond people together.’

Compliments and offers to help out will make a big difference.

Check your non-verbal cues

Anjula tells us: ‘It’s perfectly normal to feel nervous or anxious when meeting new colleagues for the first time IRL but remember your non-verbal cues could be sending messages out to others.

‘Your posture speaks volumes. Hunched shoulders or being slumped at your desk can broadcast the message that you aren’t feeling very confident. Assuming an upright posture will help you look and feel more open and approachable.

‘Avoiding eye contact can send the wrong signal, whereas holding someone’s gaze ensures others you are paying them attention and enables them to feel connected and engaged with you.

‘Finally, dazzle them with your pearly whites – smiling is contagious and increases social bonding, plus it’s a great stress reliever!’

Keep an eye on anxiety

Don’t feel silly if the prospect of social interaction is spinning you out. It’s perfectly normal for this to bring up feelings of stress and anxiety.

Anjula suggests tuning into your mental state with the traffic light method.

She explains: ‘If you’re green, you’re having a good day and you don’t feel anxious, stressed or worried.

‘On amber days, there may be some uncertainty, maybe you’re unsettled or just feel flat. On these days take yourself out for a walk, find some time to be alone, take slow breaths or grab a glass of water.

‘All these methods should help calm and re-centre you. If you’re feeling red, you’re struggling, and you need support. Reach out to a trusted colleague and ask for help, or a coffee catch up. Put a time in the diary to explain what’s worrying or stressing you, and from there work out an action plan to help rebalance the load.’

Know you’re not the only one struggling

Trust us, you’re not the only person finding this return to ‘normal’ difficult. It’s a weird situation – of course it’ll take us a while to adjust.

Talk to people you know about how you’re feeling, seek support, and enjoy the broken ice that comes when you acknowledge the post-lockdown awkwardness.

Anjula also recommends trying out some of LinkedIn’s free online courses available to help you approach the return to the office with confidence – try Speaking Confidently And Effectively or Communicating With Confidence.

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