So you’re in an empty elevator at work when a coworker suddenly rushes in. Quick: what do you talk about?
Because now that short elevator ride can feel like hours as you search for things to talk about with someone you only kind of know. You could always do the old “pretending to read an email on your phone” trick, but you might risk appearing aloof, or worse, rude. Who knew there could be so much pressure in an elevator ride?
Even though you see your coworkers every day and practically spend more time with them than your closest friends and family members, office hierarchy and culture can make it difficult when navigating workplace conversations.
While more offices are opting for open office layouts in the hopes of creating opportunities for spontaneous conversation, studies have shown that employees are actually engaging and talking less than ever.
In this age of Slack channels and employees wearing their headphones at their desks, no wonder it’s so difficult trying to find things to talk about – you don’t have very many opportunities to actually talk in person!
That’s why we’ve prepared a list of conversation topics and questions you can use the next time you find yourself with a colleague in the elevator or by the water cooler.
Because even though you don’t *have* to talk to your coworkers, you do want to have relationships with the people that you work with. The better you are known, the more likely you are to get opportunities to level up and be part of more interesting work.
Talk about their weekend
It may be hard to believe, but your coworkers have lives and interests outside of the office! The next time you see them, try asking how their weekend was or if they have any fun weekend plans coming up. The question is specific enough that you won’t get a quick yes or no response, but also general enough that your coworker can come up with an interesting response without feeling like they’re in a job interview.
I once worked at an office where we would have morning meetings every Monday. While starting the week with an office meeting isn’t always ideal, the team leader injected some positivity into it by having everyone go around the room and talk about what they did that weekend.
It was such a fun and entertaining way to kick off the week and I ended up learning so many wonderful things about my coworkers. Building this kind of personal rapport with people can actually be extremely valuable for building trust and community with your coworkers, which will help you work more effectively together.
Pay attention to their interests
By paying attention to your coworker’s interests, you’re not just blindly asking them questions about their life, which can often feel intrusive and awkward. I think that people are often turned off by small talk and icebreakers because they can feel canned and insincere.
You can avoid this trap by listening and paying attention to your coworkers over time, and using what you learn to spark more interesting conversations.
Instead of randomly asking them, “What’s your favorite food?”, try instead to be mindful of what their interests are. Maybe you notice they have a movie poster at their desk. Use that as a jumping off point for something to talk about. Or maybe you notice that your coworker bikes to work every day. Ask how they got started doing that and if they have any favorite bike paths you should try out.
Sometimes the easiest way to find things to talk about with your coworkers is to not talk at all! By listening and paying attention, you can find insights into their life and use these as entry points for conversation. You won’t have to worry about coming off too strong or insincere, because you’ll be coming from a more genuine place.
Joanna Goddard of Cup of Jo avoids small talk by asking these two questions:
“Are you planning any funny trips? (Even if they’re not, they’ll end up talking about past trips, dream vacations, where they grew up, etc.)”
“Have you seen any good movies lately?”
It’s the casual and mindful way of asking these questions that can help you avoid coming off as insincere, and instead, allow you and the other person, to feel more comfortable and engaged.
Talk about where they’ve worked before
If you have a coworker that you don’t know very well and don’t feel comfortable asking about their personal life, you can ask them questions about their previous job.
Ask them questions like:
- What kind of role did you have?
- How big was your team?
- What was the office culture like?
These questions can help you learn more about your coworker’s working style, in addition to just building rapport. And if your coworker transferred from a different team in your organization, you also gain additional knowledge on other areas of your company.
Talking about work may seem counterintuitive when you’re trying to get to know your coworker, but it’s a good topic to start with if you’re not too familiar with them and want to establish common ground.
One pitfall to avoid when talking about previous jobs is negativity. Many of us leave jobs because of problems we had within the organization, so a conversation on this topic can turn into a gripe session if you aren’t careful. Try to make sure your questions skew positive and that you dig deeper on positive topics, not negative ones.
Avoid small talk by asking for advice
Now that you know more about your coworker’s previous jobs, hobbies, and weekend plans, you might even start to feel more comfortable asking for advice. By asking for advice, you’ll also supercharge your relationship with that person by building trust.
Joy Belamarich of the website Three Chairs says that asking for advice is a great way to subtly avoid small talk by going deeper:
“It can be something small like, “what should I get my brother-in-law for his birthday?” or something bigger (“should I take this job in Oregon?”). The point isn’t so much to get sage advice (although that can, unexpectedly, happen), but to jolt some mindfulness into the conversation. Wait until there’s a tiny gap of silence, and then perk up and just go for it.
You end up learning something about each other, and the conversation almost always takes a really great turn. I think it works so well because you’re putting the person on the spot, but in the best way, a way that most people actually enjoy. I’ve tried it several times now, with a 100% success rate.”
When you ask someone for advice, you are showing the other person that you value their opinion and consider them smart. Who doesn’t appreciate that?
This is such a great way to build positive rapport with someone. You can even follow up with them later if you take their advice, and let them know how well it worked out for you.
Ask about their family
I’ve worked in offices with intimidating and no-nonsense managers who only seemed focused on their work. I had no idea what to talk about with them. They didn’t seem like the type who would want to gab about their favorite cookbook or movie. So what are things you can talk about with coworkers who don’t seem to welcome casual conversation?
While strictly-professional folks like these might enjoy a conversation about their previous jobs, you might also find that these same intimidating coworkers will brighten up once you talk to them about their family.
Maybe they have a framed picture of their family or their kids’ drawings hanging up in their office. You can even ask about their kid’s hobbies and interests.
You don’t have to ask them heavy questions like “tell me how you balance work and life” but by starting off small and commenting on a child’s drawing or a family photo, you are acknowledging your coworker and helping them feel more at ease around you.
Once a colleague feels more comfortable and you’ve broken through that initial awkwardness, you won’t have to worry about finding things to talk about, you can just talk.
Ask how they are
If you’ve exhausted your list of topics and questions and have no idea what to talk about, you can just ask them this simple question: how are you?
According to this Harvard Business Review article, we have an intrinsic desire to feel like we belong in our surroundings and communities, and this is especially true when it comes to our workplace. A simple way to make a coworker feel more welcomed, is to try the following:
“Try to establish connections with your colleagues that communicate that you value, understand, and care about them. Be present, curious, and seize small daily opportunities to connect authentically. For example, a simple “How are you doing? How can I support you?” could go a long way in nearly every setting.”
Remember: it’s not about reciting a list of topics and icebreakers. When it comes to finding things to talk about with your coworkers, you want to be mindful of how they’re feeling and doing.
By paying attention to their interests and background, you’ll have an easier time of finding things to talk about. And the next time you share an elevator with a coworker, you can feel comfortable with putting away your phone and being ready to engage.