Informal Networking: Tips for Improving Your Small Talk

Bonnie St. John

21 September 2020

If you’re like many people I know, you may be uncomfortable sharing personal information about yourself with co-workers. It may be because you grew up with humble origins and are surrounded by people who talk about foie gras, summering in the Hamptons or golf foursomes; you may not want to talk about your lousy childhood and get pity from others. Or maybe you are an immigrant to the U.S. and part of a non-Christian religion, you might feel your traditions, family stories and holidays don’t connect with the majority of people around you; you don’t want to be a curiosity. If you’re a woman or minority, you may feel a need to emphasize your professional side to maintain enough respect; you don’t want to discuss topics that undermine your authority and expertise

Sharing your personal interests, and learning about what interests others, creates the glue that makes it easier to work together.

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Whatever your reason for masking your personal life, doing so can lead to you seeming distant, aloof and not very approachable. You know you should connect with others around you, yet you can struggle to find any middle ground between "letting it all hang out" and being completely buttoned down in a coldly professional way.

Small talk was tough for me, too, as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I grew up with a stunted sense of personal relationships and an inability to respect or express my own emotions.  Couple that with being an introvert and you can imagine how bad I was at developing informal relationships at work! I have had to push myself out of my comfort zone many, many times. I find it helps me to work closely with others and watch how they do it—almost like apprenticing. Now, I even coach others on how to take concrete steps toward more informal networking. Try these actionable tips:

  • Choose your top three small talk subjects that are personal and engaging, but not uncomfortably revealing. For example, anything from community-service leadership to current business books could be conversation fodder. While you must be authentically interested in your topics, they should be carefully chosen to help create common ground with those around you. Having a few go-to topics for small talk is a best practice to achieve a professional, yet relatable style.
  • Depending on the culture of your company and your immediate team, you may include or exclude various topics in your small talk:
    • If everyone around you has children, parenting could be an excellent choice for informal sharing. However, if no one else on the team has children or you are the only woman in the group, this may not be the best choice to foster work relationships.
    • You can also use cultural differences—celebrating Diwali or Passover, or sharing ethnic foods or music. Bring others into your world in a positive way. You must be willing to educate people, answer questions, and not resent their curiosity or sometimes even awkward, inappropriate comments. You can build bridges across differences if you don’t mind being patient and forgiving.
  • With all the concern about political correctness and fear of lawsuits for harassment or bias, leaders and co-workers can become overly careful not to offend anyone with a background different from theirs, which translates into excessively formal, business-only relationships across differences.
    • You may sometimes need to take the lead if you want to develop the kind of comfortable, common-ground relationships required for honest feedback, career mentoring and ultimately the sponsorship that helps you get that promotion you want.
    • By occasionally steering conversations around to your topics, you give people ways to relate to you as a person beyond your role at work. When we are connecting across gender and ethnicity lines, others may need to feel invited before they can ask anything about your personal life. Once you are comfortable with using your personal topics to facilitate your small talk, try to discern two or three topics from your co-workers that represent their passions and interests.  
    • Similarly, building relationships with client executives means building trust by letting people know something about who you are.
  • Think carefully about how your chosen topics can not only make you seem more human, but also communicate your values and your brand. For example, discussing your leadership activities on a nonprofit board that improves the local community sends a different message than just talking about yoga classes. Or, training for a marathon demonstrates discipline and stamina, but you don't want it to sound like it interferes with your work commitments if you run dozens of them every year.  

Sharing your personal interests, and learning about what interests others, creates the glue that makes it easier to work together. Reaching out in this way helps us get beyond seeing each other as stereotypes and move toward building more authentic relationships. Whether you are an executive or still early in your career, it’s a good idea to make sure that your mentors, clients and other key stakeholders feel more trust in you because they can get to know you on a more personal level.  

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Bonnie St. John

Bonnie St. John became the first African American ever to win medals in a Winter Olympic competition, taking home a silver and two bronze medals in downhill events at the 1984 Paralympics in Innsbruck, Austria. In addition to her success as a Paralympic athlete, she is a best-selling author, keynote speaker, television and radio personality, business owner and Fortune 500 leadership consultant.

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