Helping your Employees create a sense of Community

Simple Steps to Small Talk Success
Call centres, along with all business, face a challenge in today’s tough economic situation. They need to ensure their employees do a good job, understand the customer, keep control of the conversation and, at the same time, they need to reduce turnover and keep costs down. A welcoming and comfortable workplace where there is a sense of community is a very effective way of reducing turnover. Engaging in small talk is an excellent way of creating that sense of community and of getting to know co-workers.

However, as the following vignette will illustrate, often newly arrived Canadians may not realize how important small talk is or how to do it.

“John” (not his real name) once told me how proud he was of how efficiently he handled his co-workers’ 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 and somewhat offended 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.

In the situation above, John starts to feel alienated from his co-workers- not the best way to create a warm and welcoming work environment. Someone who is good at small talk, as Debra Fine explains in her book, The Fine Art of Small Talk, makes people feel welcome and included. 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, skillful small talk helps employees improve work relationships and avoid conflict. This leads to a more harmonious workplace and less turnover. However, as illustrated above, some new Canadians need
help in learning how to make small talk. 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 employees who aren’t originally from Canada 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 create a welcoming environment where your employees will feel more comfortable communicating.

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. Additionally each member of the team understands how your predecessor completed the task. Many will expect you to maintain the status quo. Human nature is such that status quo is comfortable and is safe for most staff. Change on the other hand is uncertain and involves risk. So the backdrop as you walk into your first team meeting will have undercurrents of jealousy, suspicion and an
expectation of more of the same.
By Andrea Griggs and Sara Anderson, Guest Columnists.

Andrea Griggs is a language coach who works with people to help them improve their language and communication skills. She’s the owner of Catalyst Communication. Sara Anderson is an associate. You can find many links to great resources on their website at:

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