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Continuing the Conversation

Showing the Way

Successfully making small talk has a huge impact on the smooth operation of the workplace. If you don’t feel confident doing it, you are missing out and so is your team. In Catalyst Communication’s fall newsletter, the article “Small Talk, Big Impact” outlined how small talk helps you to 1) break the ice in new situations, 2) create good relationships, 3) improve your spoken English, especially if you don’t have enough opportunity to practice, and 4) ultimately achieve business goals, both your own and your employer’s. Sometimes you learn as much information informally through small talk as through meetings or emails. Don’t underestimate the importance of small talk!

Starting conversations is an important first step but what comes after that? Once you’ve got a conversation going, it’s crucial to keep it going. Conversation in English is like a tennis game. There’s a lot of back and forth—no one has the ball for too long. Not all cultures use this model so if you grew up with different “rules” for conversation, you might find it challenging to keep small talk going in English.

Another challenge for internationally educated professionals is rules around status.  In some cultures, only the senior or older person takes responsibility for the conversation.  In most workplaces in Canada, anyone can start and contribute to a conversation- and is expected to!  You can make small talk with the intern and the CEO- and if you do not, colleagues might believe you are unfriendly or do not enjoy your job.

But don’t panic! We’ve got some key pointers about what you can do to keep conversations going. They’ll help you figure out how to take your conversations from that first nerve-wracking icebreaker comment to a fully-fledged exchange of ideas.

Key pointer 1: Be interested!

Your conversations will last longer if you show interest. If people feel you’re listening to what they’re saying, they’ll continue. In some cultures, listening means keeping silent while the other person is speaking. If you do that in Canada, chances are the person you’re in conversation with will think you’re bored and stop speaking.

Four actions that show you’re interested:

1. Make eye contact about 60% of the time.

2. Nod your head to indicate you’re listening. Nodding in this case doesn’t mean that you agree, but that you want to hear more.

3. Give responses like mmm, right, really, uh huh while your conversation partner is speaking. This indicates that you want to hear more.

4. Mirror the body language and facial expressions of the person talking. You’ll help him or her feel more comfortable.

Tip: Watch two people making small talk. You can do this pretty much anywhere—in restaurants, elevators, waiting rooms, check-out lines, or on the bus.  How does the listener encourage the speaker? Look for all aspects of communication- verbal and non-verbal.

Key pointer 2: Offer responses!

You’re showing that you’re interested in the conversation but now you’ve got to hit that tennis ball back! You can move into a more in-depth conversation by making comments, asking questions, sharing information, and more.  Keep in mind the three As- Answer, Add and Ask.  Answer people’s questions, add some information to make the conversation more interesting and ask a follow-up question.

Here are a few examples:

1. Ask questions: Listen to the information your partner gives you and ask follow- up questions.

Your partner: I’m a Lawyer

You: Oh, interesting.  My sister is a lawyer.  What kind of law do you practice?

2. Share information: As well as asking questions, sharing information about yourself makes other people feel you’re interested in getting to know them.

Your partner: We all went to the Zoo this weekend.

You: Really? I take my kids there often.  My youngest is 4 and she just loves watching the monkeys.  How old are your kids?

3. Answer questions: When you answer questions, make sure to add some additional information.

Your partner: Do you have any plans for the weekend?

You: Yes, we’re going to see the Sounds of Music on Saturday.  It’s supposed to be quite good.  What are you doing?

Tip: Again, listen in on people making small talk. What do they say? How do they prolong the conversation? What do they do to change the topic?  Be aware of how much responsibility you are taking in the conversation.

Key pointer 3: Wrap it up gracefully!

The tennis game is coming to an end. You have one important step ahead of you: ending the conversation gracefully. You don’t want to keep the other person too long. North Americans often signal that a conversation is ending by shifting their posture and using a falling intonation with words like “well”, “so” and “then.” One nice way to end the conversation is to use a three-step approach.

Three steps to ending a conversation

1. Signal the end: You might lift your hands in an open gesture, or fold them together, while saying something like

Well….It was nice talking to you.

So…It was good talking to you.

2. Ending: Now that you’ve signaled that the conversation is ending, you can gesture or offer information in a way that is slightly more definite or abrupt. You could check your watch or take a small step away from the person while saying something like

I’d better get back to work.

I have to meet someone in a few minutes.

I’ll let you go now.

3. Taking leave Once you’ve ended the conversation, you can wrap it up by saying goodbye.  Such as:

Talk to you soon/later/tomorrow.

Take care.

Nice talking to you.


Tip: When you’re tackling a new skill, it’s helpful to first try it out in an easier situation so start practicing these techniques with people you know and like. Gradually you’ll feel confident to try them out in unfamiliar situations with people you don’t know as well.

Engaging in small talk can be a challenge. Moving a conversation to a deeper level can be difficult. Catalyst Communication offers these key pointers to guide you, to reduce the stress of small talk, and even to help you enjoy small talk easily and confidently. Practicing will help you improve significantly and you will soon experience the rewards both inside and outside the workplace.

Andrea Griggs is the founder of Catalyst Communication.

Useful Resources

Toastmaster’s Speech: How to keep a conversation going

Interesting article with 12 good tips on making small talk

English Club: Small Talk

Small talk dialogue Small Talk

“The Fine Art of Small Talk” by Debra Fine