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Helping your Employees
and Colleagues Succeed

Simple Steps to Small Talk Success

“John” (not his real name), an IT specialist and one of my language coaching participants, once told me how proud he was of how efficiently he handled people’s questions. He didn’t waste any time talking about the weather, or the weekend, or how they were doing. John went straight to the point and gave them exactly what they needed to know. Thinking that busy people would surely appreciate such economy, he was surprised to see that people stopped coming to him for help. They would go to his colleagues and would spend time chatting about nothing. John really didn’t understand what was going on and what he could do to change things.

This small vignette illustrates that newly arrived Canadians may not realize how important small talk is or how to do it. As native speakers, we take the importance of small talk for granted, knowing intuitively that it’s a vital skill in our communications tool box. We know that it enables us to break the ice with coworkers, feel comfortable in our workplace and even network more effectively.

In the social world of the workplace, skilful small talk helps employees improve work relationships, avoid conflict and seek promotion. However, many new Canadians hit the glass ceiling, finding advancement an elusive target because of their language skills. English language learners often mention that Canadians are “too polite” to address communication difficulties. Perhaps we are concerned about coming across as critical or discriminatory.

As Ansley Currie, former Director of CDS Inc, noted, “We tend to promote our top performers, and our top performers essentially have to be good communicators, as well as good workers. By ignoring our mutual communications barrier with some of our brightest workers, we are unintentionally holding back their careers, and robbing ourselves of their best performance. This is a lose-lose scenario.”

However, changing this scenario to a win-win situation is easier than you might think. A few simple steps on your part can help break the communication barrier. You may not realize that you have the language skills to help your colleagues and direct reports communicate more successfully. Here are a few quick tips to help you open the door:

  • Initiate small talk with your newly arrived colleagues and direct reports: Be the one that starts up small talk; initially, they might not feel comfortable beginning the conversation.
  • Be aware of challenging subject areas: Some of our language coaching participants feel that small talk is difficult because they don’t know anything about sports (like hockey), about a major local news event or about a popular TV show.
  • Try to focus on broader topics that don’t require a lot of specific knowledge or vocabulary: Weather, family, weekend plans are always great places to start.
  • Check in with them to see if they know what you’re talking about if you do make some small talk about a TV show, or a local news or sports event: When you bring them up to speed they will be better able to contribute to the conversation.
  • Volunteer a simple explanation: They may not know some of the key terminology around a particular small talk topic and would certainly welcome a quick description if you were to offer one. Also, idiomatic expressions are often misunderstood: “He doesn’t have a leg to stand on” might be very confusing. Rather than avoiding such expressions, take a moment to explain what they mean.

In addition to the above strategies, we have a few general tips that will help you help your English language learners be more effective communicators.

First, let them know what they need to learn. If you have identified a language habit they need to change, it is important to share this information. For example, if they speak too quickly, tell them they need to slow down to be better understood. Or, when chatting with your employees, you may feel like you’re doing all the small talk work in the conversation. Explain that both people are responsible for the conversation and it is helpful when the other “plays along”.

Also, be explicit about the social norms of company culture. For example, if someone needs to engage in more small talk to improve their work relationships, let them know that chatting briefly with people is acceptable work behaviour and it’s appropriate and expected that they contribute.

A further example might be your open-door policy where most of your direct reports drop by informally once a week to chat and update you on their work. If you notice that your new employee never stops in, or when they do they get straight to the report, take a moment to talk about your expectations. Let them know that you would like people to come by once a week or so and that it’s helpful to have a bit of social chitchat before getting down to business.

Finally, know that new Canadian employees will appreciate your taking the time to help them improve their language skills. They are extremely eager to communicate more successfully in English because they know it will help them do a better job. One last thing you can do is refer them to resources that can help. We have listed some appropriate sources below and we encourage you to share them. It’s up to you to foster a culture of learning, understanding and growth at the workplace.

Andrea Griggs is the founder of Catalyst Communication, and Sara Anderson is a key associate. They are both committed to helping clients take charge of their learning.

Useful Resources

This is our home page. In addition to information about our services, our Resources page has many links to great sites to help people improve their language and communication skills.

This website lets you both listen to and read various real conversations and texts. You can get help with vocabulary as well. The site is a bit confusing, so spend some time taking the useful tutorials to learn how to use the site. Most of the services are free; some services require a subscription fee.

The Fine Art of Small Talk. Debra Fine, 2005

This book (written for Native English speakers) has some great tips for improving your skill at small talk.

Other interesting websites on small talk: