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Learn small talk -- it's good for your career

  • Story Highlights
  • Small talk does not have to feel awkward but can actually benefit your career
  • By asking open-ended questions, you invite discussion
  • Talk about what you know so you'll feel more comfortable, expert suggests
  • Expert says listening is just as important as speaking
By Anthony Balderrama writer
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When with associates, ask questions and discuss topics that invite dialogue, an expert says.

When with associates, ask questions and discuss topics that invite dialogue, an expert says.

In the sales world, the fabled "elevator pitch" is championed as a business fundamental. If you can't recite your job description in a 30-second elevator ride, you're going to miss out on major business opportunities.

That's great advice for people who have less than a minute to kill and in situations where chitchatting about your job duties is appropriate. Unfortunately not all conversations are as brief. When you and a few colleagues are sitting in a meeting room waiting for everyone to arrive, you have too many minutes of silence to fill.

Or ask anyone who's been at a lunch where most attendees don't know each other and they'll tell you that job descriptions don't take up nearly enough time.

Unless you want to play with your salad for an hour and watch tumbleweeds to roll by, you need to learn how to talk to anyone you might encounter at work.

Think small

If you're in a situation where you have no choice but to talk to the people you're with, the first thing you should do is look at it as an opportunity to make new contacts. Don't view talking to business associates as a chore. Approaching the conversation in this mindset will take the pressure off of you to perform and you can just be yourself.

Talk about what you know, says Sue Thompson, who conducts personality and business etiquette training for Set Free Life Seminars.

"Use a three-month rule: Start with topics on which you can generate conversation having to do with something you've done in the past three months or are planning to do in the next three months," Thompson recommends.

This route could lead you to talk about remodeling your home, taking a vacation or picking out a new family pet. Not only are you comfortable talking about these topics, but the other person can offer his or her experience on the subject.

Asking questions and discussing topics that invite dialogue, rather than monologues, are also good steps. You want some give-and-take during the discussion, advises Lynne Eisaguirre, author of "We Need to Talk: Tough Conversations With Your Boss."

"Ask open-ended questions," Eisaguirre says. "Open-ended questions are those that start with who, what, where, when. If you ask these kinds of questions, it keeps the conversations flowing better than if you ask a question that can be answered yes or no."

Even if you never get beyond personal anecdotes about a vacation gone wrong or your child's soccer game, the conversation is worth having. Resist the temptation to sit silently while everyone files into the meeting.

"Always make the effort to start a conversation. Your work relationships are your wealth at work," Eisaguirre reminds. "Especially in this age of downsizing, you need to maintain your relationships. It's something that no one can take away from you, even if you leave your current employment. Relationships are built though conversations."

Think about the amount of people supervisors, C-levels and other executives encounter each day. Even with the best memory and great personal skills, they're bound to forget names. But if you're the person that bonded with them over funny stories about your children or had a lengthy conversation about a current event, they're more likely to remember you. It doesn't mean a few minutes of chitchat will keep you safe during layoffs, but having a strong network can help you stay on important people's radars.

Listen, listen, listen

Conversations consist of a dialogue, and for one person to talk, the other one has to listen. (Or at least the other person should be listening.) Otherwise, you have two people waiting to talk and no exchange of ideas -- not exactly the experience you want to have with your colleagues. That's why, in a conversation, listening is just as important as speaking, says Lynne Sarikas, director of the MBA Career Center at Northeastern University's College of Business Administration.

"Early in my career I heard very sage advice: 'There is a reason you have one mouth and two ears; you are intended to listen more than you speak,'" she says. "Still true today." Regardless of your professional rank in relation to the other person, you can just be attentive and respectful during the conversation.

"Show the other person respect by listening to what they have to say," Sarikas says. "Acknowledge, either verbally or with a nod, as appropriate. Ask questions. Use the person's name. Do not interrupt when they are speaking."

Sounds basic, right? That's the point.

Regardless of whom you're talking to, the fundamentals of a conversation aren't all that complicated. Just because someone has a higher job title than you, it doesn't mean you have to relearn everything you know about having a chat with someone.

Here are some tips to remember:

• Talk about what you know

To kick start the conversation, mention work, family, hobbies or current events (as long as they're not controversial). Let the conversation flow from there.

• Listen

Make sure you let other people have their say. Listen for verbal cues to guide the conversation. If they seem disinterested in discussing work but perk up when you mention that you're looking to adopt a puppy, go down that path.

• Be personal

In the busy business world, you're often limited to holding conversations with the few same people over and over again. Use these one-off conversations as a chance to learn about new colleagues, find out what they do, remember their names and exchange cards or phone numbers if appropriate.

• Initiate conversation

The temptation will be to sit uncomfortably staring at your blank notepad or checking e-mail on your BlackBerry, but get over the initial discomfort and strike up a conversation. At worst you're making small talk for a few minutes. But you might end up with a new contact in your network who can help you down the road.

Copyright 2009. All rights reserved. The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast or otherwise distributed without the prior written authority

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