Let’s talk about how to make small talk in the workplace. Making conversation at work and being approachable in the eyes of your colleagues is no small feat. For some people, water cooler talk is like being attacked by a swarm of mosquitos, something to be avoided like the plague.
In this post, we’ll define small talk, define approachable behavior in the workplace, share strategies on how to become more approachable, and provide a list of water cooler conversation topics you can use at work.
Being Approachable Even Though You Hate Small Talk
We all deal with different levels of shyness and social anxiety. Some of us love to chat with people and find it as effortless as breathing, but for others, having to make small talk can cause full-on panic. What if I say something stupid? What if I offend them? Does anybody care what I have to say anyway?
And for those who find conversation effortless, encountering someone quiet and withdrawn can cause a lot of stress as well. What are they thinking? Have I done something to offend them? Why don’t they like me?
That’s why it’s important we try to meet each other halfway. Even if you hate small talk, sometimes, it’s just the polite thing to do. It puts us on even ground with each other. While discussing the weather may seem pointless, it’s something we can all relate to, and it invites people to let their guards down in the workplace.
We all worry that we’re being judged by others, and looking people in the eye, smiling, and engaging with them eases that fear and allows us all to breathe a sigh of relief. They say handshaking was invented to reassure the other person that you weren’t holding a weapon; a smile and a friendly bit of conversation reassures people you aren’t thinking terrible thoughts about them or wishing them ill.
📚 Actionable Strategies for Better Communication in the Workplace
How To Be More Approachable at Work
Watch Your Body Language
Do you look approachable?
Small details in our body language can make us look unapproachable and scare away colleagues. For example, looking down and hunching your shoulders is a clear sign you don’t want to speak to someone.
Looking at your watch or a clock is another clear signal that you are uninterested in what your coworkers have to say. It gives people the sense that you are in a hurry and would rather be somewhere else. Smartwatches count too!
Stand up straight, make eye contact, and smile. These are all good examples of being approachable. You may not want to speak to anyone right at that moment, but there’s a pretty good chance they don’t want to speak to you either and are just going about their business. Not everyone is trying to hijack your time and engage you in conversation.
When you are speaking to someone, pay attention to their body language as well. Emulating someone’s body language makes them more comfortable around you; it’s an unconscious signal that you have something in common. When you feel like you can relate to someone, it makes them much more approachable.
📚 For more advice and clear strategies, read our guide on How to Improve Workplace Body Language.
A simple, genuine smile can go a long way. Not only does it make you much more approachable, but it can also do wonders for your own wellbeing. Forcing yourself to smile even when you don’t feel like it boosts your mood and generates positive emotions. In other words, fake it till you make it.
But why do we smile? Where did it come from? Frank McAndrew, a professor of psychology, has done quite a lot of research on facial expressions, and he says, “In primates, showing the teeth, especially teeth held together, is almost always a sign of submission. The human smile probably has evolved from that.”
While the alpha-types around us probably don’t like the idea of ‘submitting’ to anyone, a smile is meant to make you appear non-threatening. If someone smiles at you, chances are they mean you no harm. Of course, this isn’t always the case (looking at you, Joker 🤡), but generally, for the rest of us who aren’t homicidal maniacs, a smile is a signal to the people around you that you’re not about to attack them, and they can approach you safely if they wish.
Even if you are forcing yourself to smile, it’s important that it doesn’t look forced. If you struggle with smiling, practice in a mirror at home or try to think of something that genuinely makes you happy to ensure your smile looks legitimate.
Get to Know Your Colleagues’ Communication Preferences
Everyone communicates differently. Understanding how your colleagues prefer to communicate will help you communicate with them effectively.
As a team, Blue Summit completed the assessment, and the insights we gained have been far-reaching. We came away with a better understanding of ourselves, our coworkers, interdepartmental dynamics, and how the team can thrive as a cohesive unit.
We’re also big fans of the Enneagram personality assessment. Learn how to Work Better Together By Using Enneagrams to Understand Coworkers.
Getting to know our coworkers’ unique work and communication habits and idiosyncrasies makes it that much easier to engage with them. You may think a coworker doesn’t like you, but when you learn more about how they communicate, you could realize that they’re actually painfully shy, and your bombastic personality makes them put their guard up.
Or you may realize that your coworker’s idea of on time is much different than your own. What you thought was a sign of disrespect and laziness is actually just a symptom of them always taking on too many tasks and trying to do too many things at once. They’re not late because they’re lazy; they’re actually working extremely hard and struggling to find more time in the day.
Getting to know your coworkers’ habits and communication preferences lets you know how you can approach them more effectively, and vice versa, which naturally makes everyone on the team more approachable.
Show Empathy and Understanding
Everyone is living their own lives with their own problems and struggles. Choose to become more approachable by showing empathy towards your coworkers.
Not everyone is as comfortable with small talk at work, and this article isn’t going to change that. There is such a thing as comfortable, companionable silence. Don’t be offended if someone isn’t up for speaking to you right at that moment—it doesn’t mean they’re judging you or that they don’t like you. It could mean they’re shy. It could mean they’re sensitive about a perceived insecurity you haven’t noticed. It could mean English isn’t their first language and they’re worried about making a mistake.
Your coworker’s silence very likely has absolutely nothing to do with you, so there’s no need to feel uncomfortable or awkward. We all communicate differently, so instead of feeling judged, try to understand where your coworker is coming from.
Ride the elevator or share the lunchroom in silence. Once they stop being afraid they’ll be forced to speak to you, they can begin to communicate with you in their own time. They’ll enjoy your company because they know they can rely on you to not pressure them.
Ask Questions and Get to Know People
Asking people polite, office-appropriate questions is a good way to become more approachable at work. There’s a good chance your coworkers are intimidated as well, so asking them a question can show interest and build rapport.
Once you learn something about a coworker, be sure to make a mental note of it. The next time you see them, you can ask them about said topic. If they mentioned they were going on a camping trip this weekend, ask them on Monday how it went. If you know they love a specific sports team, ask them about the latest game. If they love television and movies, ask them what they’re currently watching and if they have any recommendations for you.
Larry says… If you’re enjoying this read, you might also like: How to Make Office Friends and Get Along with Coworkers.
Water Cooler Talk Conversation Starters
So, now you know how to be more approachable at work, but what conversation starters should you be using? What water cooler topics work best in the workplace, and how do you become an expert at water cooler chats?
Water cooler conversation needs to be kept light and office-appropriate—so don’t talk about politics, and don’t talk about religion. If you’re looking for tips for small talk and trying to engage someone in conversation, it’s always best to ask some questions.
Small talk conversation starters:
- Are you reading any good books or watching any fun shows right now?
- Are you listening to any interesting podcasts?
- What’s a food you absolutely hate?
- If you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?
- Would you rather work for three hours every day or only work three days a week but for 10 hours at a time?
- If you could only watch one genre of movie for the rest of your life, what would it be?
- If you could teleport to anywhere in the world right now for a two-week vacation, where would you go? Who would you bring?
- Which Game of Thrones character do you relate to most?
- What was your favorite subject in school? Which subject did you absolutely hate?
- Do you have any hidden talents?
- When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
- If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
- If you could be best friends with any type of animal, what would it be?
- If you could transform into any kind of animal at will, which animal would you choose?
- What color of lightsaber would you choose?
- Would you rather live under the sea or in space?
- Where would you go first in a zombie apocalypse? (After collecting your family.)
- Batman or Superman?
- Marvel or DC?
- Dogs or cats?
- Sweet or salty snacks?
- What’s a movie, book, or show everyone hates, but you love?
- If you could instantly become an expert at any sport, what would it be?
Small talk doesn’t just have to be about the weather or work. The next time you’re caught in an awkward silence, try asking your coworker a fun question like the ones listed above. Hypothetical questions are fun and engaging, which, in turn, makes you fun and engaging and, most of all, approachable.
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