In defence of small talk

Small talk, or “polite conversation about unimportant or uncontroversial matters” as the dictionary has it, has an unfairly bad reputation. For a lot of people, small talk feels awkward or difficult, and for many others it just seems like a total waste of time, especially in a business context. But small talk has an important purpose and learning how to make great small talk will serve you in good stead.

Opportunities for small talk are surprisingly frequent during the work day and, for people who feel comfortable with it, they pass without regard. In the lift, at the beginning of meetings, walking up the stairs, waiting for the kettle to boil when making tea, we’re chatting away to all and sundry about seemingly meaningless things… or we’re suffering in uncomfortable silence, wishing we either knew what to say or could just be left alone. So why do we do it?

Small talk is a form of ‘phatic communication’ – that is communication that has no informational or transactional content – and it’s this seeming lack of purpose that can make us feel uncomfortable. But phatic communication is a social activity that we use to create and maintain social bonds, define interpersonal relationships, and determine our relative social position. At the beginning of a meeting, small talk helps strangers to demonstrate friendly intentions and acquaintances to re-establish their relationship. At the end of a conversation, it’s a way to affirm our positive attitude towards the other party – think about how discombobulating it is when someone cuts a conversation off cold and just walks away.

Through small talk people also reveal contextual information that they couldn’t otherwise share, particularly in a business setting. It’s around the coffee machine that you’re most likely to find out that your colleague was up all night with their sick child, which is why they looked like they were nodding off in the meeting. This extra nugget of information allows you to sympathise with them instead of getting annoyed – the context turns a negative reaction into a positive one, and helps prevent ruffled feathers.

But what if you feel deeply uncomfortable with small talk and just don’t know what to say? The good news is that it’s a skill that can be learnt and developed, and that there are some simple tactics for you to try:

Prepare some questions

Memorise a list of open-ended questions that you can ask the other person. They don’t have to be questions about work, though if you know you have something in common that’s a good place to start. As clichéd as it sounds, commenting on the weather is a pretty safe bet, as is asking how someone’s weekend went.

But beware formulaic questions such as, “How are you?” which invite closed responses like, “Not too bad, thanks” and don’t give you an opening to further conversation. It’s also unwise to ask questions that are too personal, so don’t ask women if they have children, for example, and avoid topics like religion, politics and money.


Listen more than you speak. If you’re shy and don’t like talking about yourself, then you’re in luck, because people respond very well to those who actively listen to them. Make eye contact, smile, and use both verbal and non-verbal cues to indicate that you’re listening.

Prepare your responses

If you can, try to give away something about yourself when you’re answering a question. Small talk is a back and forth, so try to resist the temptation to give a monosyllabic answer to a question to try to shift attention away from yourself.

If you really don’t like giving up info about yourself, you can also ask supplementary questions that deflect attention to yourself, but still indicate that you’re interested in your conversational partner. You can also practise mirroring the gestures, posture, facial expressions and even tone of voice of your interlocutor to help build a rapport.

There are no wrong answers

Don’t fret about getting an answer ‘wrong’ or about whether you think you were sufficiently scintillating. Phatic communication is about signalling openness to future social interactions, it’s not going to be remembered for long by the other party, so if you ask questions, smile, listen, and give salient answers, you’re saying everything you need to say.

Small talk doesn’t have to be tedious or awkward. With a little bit of thought and practice, it can help you to build stronger professional relationships, as well as giving you valuable insights into what’s going on with your colleagues. So the next time you’re in a lift or waiting for a meeting to start, embrace the weather forecast!

Seven ways to improve your empathy skills

EmpathyEmpathy is fast becoming recognised as an essential skill that improves relationships between individuals and contributes to business success. Research into the impact of increased empathy goes back decades, and businesses recognise its importance. Ford Motor Company has even asked its engineers, who are mostly men, to wear the Empathy Belly so that they can experience some of the physical effects of pregnancy.

What is less widely understood is that empathy is a skill that people can learn, improve and strengthen, like any other skill. We all know people who seem to be naturally empathic, but we never question whether that’s an innate ability or whether they’ve actually just learnt well and use the skill a lot. Indeed, women are expected to be more empathic than men, but this is a self-fulfilling prophecy where women get a lot more practice as empathic burdens are placed disproportionately on their shoulders.

Women are assumed to be ‘naturally empathic’, but in reality we learn it just the same as every other skill, which means we don’t always get it right. So let’s take a look at what empathy is and isn’t, and techniques for improving your empathy skills.

Empathy is defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”. It is the skill to develop insights into how others are thinking and why they react as they do, the capacity to recognise people’s emotional inner life, and the desire to make them feel heard and understood. Empathy creates trust and trust improves relationships.

Business is as much about building good relationships as it is delivering a service or product, so it’s obvious how empathy feeds into the bottom line. Empathy is also important in an academic context, allowing lecturers, tutors, supervisors and researchers to build strong and healthy relationships with their students, co-authors, collaborators and peers.

Empathy is increasingly important as globalisation increases as well. Working with international teams from multiple cultures requires more empathy than working within a familiar and homogenous group. And sensitivity is especially required when working with, and on issues affecting, minorities and underserved communities. The advocate must develop deep empathy for the people they serve in order to be effective.

But empathy is not about taking on more emotional labour, it’s not about always being the person who de-escalates tension within the workplace, is the shoulder to cry on or the person to rage at. It is not about taking on other people’s work in order to make life easier for them, and it is not about exhibiting people-pleasing behaviours such as pretending to agree or apologising all the time. And it’s not about avoiding conflict or being compliant.

Indeed, dealing with conflict is a scenario where empathy is especially important – understanding why there is disagreement and what is motivating the people involved can provide important insights into potential solutions. And sometimes, those solutions have nothing to do with the putative subject of the argument, because the real problem lies elsewhere and thus so does the answer.  

So how do you improve your empathy muscles? Here are a few tips to try:

  1. Listen, and listen fully. Focus all your attention on what people are saying, rather than checking your phone or mentally preparing your next response as they speak. The more you pay attention to what they are saying, the more you will hear the nuance in their tone of voice, and that will tell you a lot about how they are feeling.

  2. Make eye contact, but don’t stare. Eye contact is a crucial aspect of body language which indicates honesty, sincerity, confidence and comfort, and that you actually are paying attention! Staring, on the other hand, is a sign of aggression. If you’re not comfortable making eye contact, practice with someone you trust, but be careful not to overcompensate.

  3. Pay attention to body language. Facial expressions and posture can all tell us something about how the people we’re talking to are feeling. Are they tense, relaxed, excited? Their body language and facial expressions might be saying something very different to what their words are saying, and could give you insights into their real thought processes.

  4. Don’t interrupt unless you really have to. No matter how keen you are to put your point of view across, it’s generally better to let people finish so that you reduce the risk of misunderstanding and help them to feel heard. Sometimes, however, interruptions are necessary, so when you do interrupt, be respectful and polite about it.

  5. Acknowledge. Once you’ve listened, acknowledge what you have heard. People don’t just want to speak, they want to be heard, they want their feelings to be recognised. This doesn’t mean using trite formulations like, “What I hear is…”, but explaining your understanding of the problem they have expressed can help ensure that you really have got it right, and gives them a chance to clarify if they need to.

  6. Pay attention to group dynamics. Empathy is not just important in one-on-one conversations, but also in groups. Is someone being excluded? Why might that be? Are there undercurrents of aggression, frustration, or other negative emotions that you can spot via body language? What is the power dynamic? Understanding group dynamics will help you function better in that group and, if you’re a manager, give you key insights into potential interventions to improve team cohesion.

  7. Engage in scenarios thinking. We respond better to difficult situations if we’ve already got a mental model of what needs to be done, so run some thought experiments, perhaps even practice with a trusted friend, to work out your response to various problems. This will not only help you spot warning signs so that you can intervene earlier, but also help you respond empathetically should issues arise, rather than reacting in surprise.

Empathy is a skill and like any other skill, the more you do it the better you’ll get at it. But equally, don’t overdo it. Empathy is a finite resource and it is possible to wind up with ‘compassion fatigue’, so use the empathy you have very wisely. If you’re a manager, make sure your staff are taking their fair share of the empathy load. Better still, look for ways to reduce that load, perhaps by changing team culture, building in breaks so staff with empathically demanding roles can focus on other things, and facilitating better team communications.