A Short Guide to Small Talk – How to Ask Questions That Matter?

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small talk

For most of us introverts, small talk is hell. But you know what is worse in Office life? Awkward silence. Here is a short guide to help you survive it and even make it valuable.

You’ve been listening to the notes of the corporate hold music that passes for a melody for the past few minutes before the familiar crackle of a fellow participant joining the call snaps you out of your musings about the weather outside.

‘Oh, who’s there?’

The awkward fumbling for conversation fodder begins. Small talk is known as the bane of most conference calls and should be avoided at all costs. In an ideal world, your company would be using a conference call solution that cuts out wait times. However, until such time as that conference call utopia exists we can do our best to redirect small talk so that it is more constructive.

Small talk, also known as hairdresser talk outside of corporate circles, can eat up valuable collaboration time with reflections on the day’s weather or detailed itineraries of your colleagues’ holidays. Participants will usually engage in small talk as they feel it is disrespectful to talk about the call’s agenda without their colleagues present and don’t want to leave other attendees’ in silence. While this is a nice gesture, it can easily spill into the conference, when everyone has connected to the call as each person gets caught up in the small talk and wants to add their own thoughts to the conversation. Small talk also gives participants who may be uncomfortable with presenting or participating over the phone a chance to settle into the call while discussing something without consequence.

It may seem difficult at first to direct small talk constructively but it can be a good chance to get more informal and possibly constructive feedback on your project. Or you may choose to stay more personable and build a rapport with colleagues you may not often get a chance to interact with.

Surprise them

People are bored to death of talking all year round of the weather and commuting. Shake them up a little by asking them uncommon questions. You will learn much more about them.

  • What career advice would you give your 20-years old self?

As successful as people are, chances are they all wish they had done something differently or learned it sooner. It will tell you what challenges they’ve been through, or what their current focus is.  Understanding that will help you help them.

  • Would you rather work more hours over fewer days or work only 5 hours per day?

This last question is one of my favourites as it is an implicit invitation to talk about personal hobbies or family life without sounding inquisitive.

Keep small talk topical

If the host of the call is following good practice they will have sent around an agenda before the call for you to work with. You can use this as a starting point for more meaningful small talk at the start of a conference call.

For example, ask your colleague:

  • What parts of the agenda will you be contributing to?
  • Are you expecting this discussion will impact your day to day tasks?
  • What are you hoping to achieve on the call today?

Asking them open-ended questions will encourage them to elaborate and give your colleague an opportunity to answer meaningfully. By asking your colleague about the purpose of the call you are helping them become invested in the call and in turn help them stay more focused and engaged. Relating the content of the upcoming call to your colleague allows them to talk about themselves, the topic they know the most about and will give them a more masterful command of the content.

If they haven’t already, the latter will encourage them to think about what their goal is. It also implies that, if possible, you will push the conversation towards their objective.

Don’t talk too much; listen.

The other part of small talk (and certainly the most important) is listening, specifically practising active listening. Acknowledge the other person by name to reassure them you’re paying attention. Practice active listening by making affirmative sounds while listening to the speaker and reflecting what they have said back to them. Dig deeper by asking more precise questions. “How do you plan on doing this?”, “What kind of help could you use?”, “Where did you get inspiration from?”.

Making small talk constructive at the start of conference calls will help participants focus on the agenda and keep them engaged. 

And remember, the most interesting people are often the most interested.


Tell us your favourite conversation starters below in the comments, or cut out small talk altogether with 247meeting Mobile.

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