One of the most underrated skills to master at work is the ability to have small conversations that don’t feel forced.

Some people are good at it, and others feel awkward in front of a colleague they don’t know that well, or not at all. I belong to the latter, unfortunately. I had to find a way to make small talk interesting so I stay engaged and find something to say. It’s still a work in progress as the approach below is a habit to develop, but I’ll get there, and so will you!

1. Stay aware of the situation

Being mindful at work in a great way to stay in control and make conscious micro-decisions. When you are not great at something – small talk in this case – you can learn it through mindful practice. That means reading your internal signals, checking what your body says. The good news is that if you are reading this article, you are already working on it since you will know what to look for.

> Read More: How To Practice Mindfulness Every Day

2. Smile, be inviting

One of the things you need to be mindful of is your own facial expressions. If you tend to frown or have a naturally unimpressed look, you will give the perception to others that you are not available for a chat, that you are angry, focused or frustrated. And people won’t talk to you. That’s personally what I struggled the most at the beginning and what mindfulness helped me the most with.

Don’t get me wrong. There will be time where we don’t want to chat, or where we are not available. I am not telling you to start talking to everyone at the coffee machine. Just, when you move from one meeting room to another, or when you go get that caffeine boost, be sure you give the image that you will not bark at people if they say hi.

3. Start the conversation

How many times do you say hi to people you don’t know at work? My bet is, not too many. So start by that. It will be amazing to meet new people and grow your network.

This is where you are probably going to tell me: “okay Marion, that’s nice, I can say hi how are you, but what do I say after that?!” – fair enough. After you, or the other person, started the conversation, there are a couple of tips you can follow.
What to answer to “how are you?”, aside from “I’m busy”

From now on, I want you to start counting the number of times you are replying “busy” to this question, and notice how many times people are also saying it. You would be surprised.

The answer everyone gives is: “I’m busy”. I’ve always disliked that answer when I asked that question, yet when I was asked, that’s what I replied. Everyone is busy at work, that’s what we are paid to do. It’s very hard to engage in a full conversation that will be constructive or interesting after this answer. The other person is going to be forced to reply “me too”, and if they both keep talking, it will likely be a slightly negative conversation on the workload each of them have.

So what to answer instead? You can still talk about work, and even your workload if you wish, but in different words. If you can, you can start talking about the last thing you’ve just done, or the project you are working on.

> Read more: 30 Conversation Starters For When You Don’t Know What To Ask

4. What to do after you passed the “how are you” stage

“Busy” is also the go-to answer in the workplace because people expect to be asked but not really listened to – so why would you start talking?

If you want to get better at small talk, and have meaningful and interesting conversations, even if very short, it actually comes down to 3 skills:

  1. Being mindful and aware
  2. Asking questions
  3. And actively listening to the answers

That’s all. We’ve seen #1 above, so let’s focus on the questions and active listening part.

Actively listen

Pay attention to the answers the other person gives, and listen actively to all that is said; first, because that’s the polite thing to do; second, because it’s quite rare in the workplace to talk to someone who listens; and third, because that will help you ask better questions.

> Read more: The Only Tips You’ll Need To Develop Your Active Listening Skills

Ask questions

If you had to remember one trick to easily ask questions, it’s this one. Ask questions using the words the other person is using. Not your words. Theirs. For instance, if the person says they are busy (ugh), you could ask: “how busy are you?”. They could say “I have a big project coming up” and you could reply: “what’s that big project?”, etc etc. That makes the conversation a lot more interesting than talking about the weather or the weekend.

> Read more: Ask More Questions

5. Followup

Once the conversation is finished, regardless of the time you both spent talking, remember it for next time you meet the person. It will be a lot easier to use what was said in the previous encounter to engage with the person again. Using the example of the big project coming in, since you asked about it, you can easily start the following conversation to ask how this project is going, which you wouldn’t be able to do if you hadn’t ask questions about it.