In a pre-pandemic world, small talk was already an uncomfortable way to launch into a deeper discussion during a mandatory work meeting, or even before an intense job interview. With many working from home as the coronavirus pandemic continues and having to log into virtual meetings, that personal connection is lacking, but the small talk seems to be amping up. “One thing everyone has in common right now is that we all are feeling the effects of the pandemic and can relate to the emotional, mental, and physical stress it has brought to our lives. There are moments when small talk can appear annoying or disingenuous, and we should be mindful of how it may make a person feel when we engage in these types of conversations that lack substance,” explains certified life coach and author Chelley-Cheyenne.
Despite the conventional practice of keeping things light, studies have shown that people prefer having deeper and more meaningful conversations. Researchers found that a stimulating conversation can turn your frown upside down, especially if the conversations have substance.
Here are five ways to cultivate your small talk into a conversation that has more meaning.
1. Be intentional about your conversation
Kristen Carter, life coach and author, says simply acknowledging the reality of the influx of virtual conversations can help put people at ease: “Also try asking the other person or people how they’d like to proceed. You could say something like, ‘I know we’re all having so many Zoom calls these days, and they can sometimes be draining. Would your preference be to jump right into the meeting, or to take a minute to have a deep breath and chat about something other than work?”
She also suggests thanking everyone on the call as a sign of respect for their presence and time. “Make a commitment to giving them your full attention and making the most of your conversation. Thank them genuinely at the end of your call.”
2. Ask open-ended questions
When you ask a “what” question, you may get a one-word answer, but asking an open-ended “why” or a “how” question will get you more of a motivated, in-depth answer. “I always ask questions that will encourage more dialog such as, ‘How has your schedule or work-life balance changed during the pandemic?’ This allows the person to take a moment to reflect on a thorough answer and gives the impression that you genuinely care to know their response,” Chelley-Cheyenne says.
Amber Campion, integrative life and leadership coach, says asking, ‘How are you, really?’ can make all the difference. “With this prompt, I open by sharing how the question, ‘How are you?’ has become so patterned in us that we often ask it without really intending to hold space for the answer. Because of this, we have become a culture of, ‘I'm fine.’ This teaches us to not really connect with our feelings and state of being or to trust that others really care how we are doing, really.” While it’s okay to probe deeper and find out about something that matters to whoever you are talking to, Carter says be sure to read the cues when someone isn’t in a sharing mood because everyone handles stress differently.
3. Check your body language
Body language cues like eye contact, nodding, and facial expressions communicate everything especially virtually. “Body language plays a huge role in whether any conversation feels meaningful or empty. It’s said that up to 93 percent of what we communicate is nonverbal. In a virtual conversation, body language includes things like whether you sit still, look at your camera, react with facial expressions to what the other person is saying. Feeling heard is not boring; feeling like the other person is not really paying attention would make any conversation boring,” Carter says. She adds that if you are stressed, impatient, or nervous, that energy will be obvious. Campion suggests taking four deep breaths before the meeting to get more relaxed and present.
Read more: How to Listen Effectively (& Why You Should)
4. Ask for advice
A great way to make the conversation more meaningful is to ask for advice. “Sometimes people have to be encouraged to open up, and you can do this by asking specific questions,” Chelley-Cheyenne says. “There have been times when I would start a conversation by posing a question to the group, such as, ‘I’m trying to create a good cookbook, what are some dishes I should consider putting in it?’ Within minutes everyone began sharing family secret recipes and cooking tips with me which made for great conversation and many individuals followed-up with me days later to see if I tried their recipes
5. Let the music play
Campion says one way to get the conversation flowing and to create a rapport in a fun way is to turn on some music. “Something that has been invaluable in creating a more open and connected feeling when meeting virtually is to turn on music and have a little dance party for one song. A common uplifting ice breaker I've been sharing in my virtual meetings is, "when in doubt, dance it out!”
Read more: 10 Female Musicians You Need in Your Life
About our sources
Chelley-Cheyenne has been a life coach for more than 20 years. Her professional career began in the health and fitness industry in 1996 and took a swift turn into higher education, where she has remained since 2000. She has worked for some of the most distinguished colleges and universities in the northeastern and southeastern areas of the country and has coached over 5,000 students during this time.
Amber Campion is an integrative life and leadership coach who has spent the past 15 years teaching how to hold space for you to truly see what you’re capable of once you peel back the layers of beliefs, conditioning, core wounds, and trauma that obscure the truth and luminosity of your essential self.
Kristen Carter is a writer and coach certified in positive psychology, family coaching, the Enneagram and life coaching. She has been in private practice since 2009, first in Johannesburg, South Africa and now in the mountains west of Boulder, Colorado. Prior to coaching, Kristen worked in public relations and corporate communications for 20 years.