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Breaking the Silence

Brushing up on your small talk is more important than you think.

A quiet elevator ride or break room java fix is fine when solo, but occupy that same space with one of your employees, and suddenly the silence is deafening. Like it or not, as the business owner, you should show you care about the people who help run your enterprise, and these moments are the perfect opportunity. But if engaging in idle chitchat makes you groan inwardly, take heart: Small talk can convey warmth even if the only real heat is the steam rising from your coffee mug.

Because of its informal nature, small talk provides an easy in-and-out of quick conversations that can leave employees feeling good about the interaction, though you may have forgotten moments later. "If you hear employees talking about a movie or what they did on the weekend, get involved," instructs Don Gabor, small-talk expert and author of Words That Win: What to Say to Get What You Want (Prentice Hall Press). Throw in a quick question or comment, and you instantly succeed in showing interest, as well as proving you're not all business, in a matter of mere seconds.

While open-ended questions can reveal the deep, inner thoughts of an employee, you may not have time for that. Simple questions can help you feign curiosity without involving you in a lengthy discussion. By employing the dual approach of interjecting/excusing yourself with closed-ended questions or comments like "Aren't you lucky?" or "Sounds like quite an experience!" during the early stages of Tom's epic weekend-warrior escapades or Jane's antiquing bonanza, you can safely high-tail it to your office while others marvel at your enthusiasm.

If hanging onto every word in the exchange proves unbearable, just make sure you pick up on at least one key element to ask about, says Gabor. And cinch endings with surefire closures. "Well, got to get back to work," is a tried-and-true favorite of Gabor's, who always makes sure to add, "But it was really fun hearing about . . ." Restating something mentioned by an employee shows that you are listening. And if all else fails, a simple hello and goodbye using their names still shows effort, one they'll remember long after you do.

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This article was originally published in the February 2004 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Breaking the Silence.

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