I don’t know about you, but networking used to make my palms sweat. I used to feel like I did when I was back in middle school, trying to make small talk with people I didn’t know. It’s a skill you can master, and it’s critically important if you want to succeed in business.

In this article, we will uncover the three phases of small talk: the ice breaker, the rapport builder, and the graceful exit, and provide specific networking tips to help you engage in great conversations. But first, let’s get some fundamentals out of the way.

What is Small Talk? Why Is It So Important For Business Networking?

Small talk is not trivial. It is the first way we reveal ourselves.

Small talk is the casual conversation you have with someone before getting down to business. It’s a way to break the ice, build rapport, and create a connection.

Small talk is often considered a necessary evil. Of course, we all know that networking is vital for business success, but the idea of standing around chatting about the weather can be daunting.

However, small talk serves an essential purpose in business networking. It helps to create a connection with someone and gives you a chance to assess whether there is potential for a more meaningful relationship.

Small talk can also be a way to break the ice and build rapport. After all, doing business with someone you like and trust is easier. So the next time you find yourself feeling awkward trying to start a conversation in social situations, remember that it could be the first step to building a valuable business connection.

The 3 Phases of Small Talk

1. The 'Icebreaker' Phase: Getting The Conversation Started

Momentum begets momentum, and the best way to start is to start.

You attend a networking event, make eye contact with someone you want to meet, approach them, and introduce yourself. Now what?

A few powerful, open-ended icebreaker questions should certainly do the trick. This will help you learn more about the other person and give them a chance to talk about themselves, which they love to do.

small talk - The 'Icebreaker' Phase

Examples Of Icebreaker Questions

A couple of simple, proven, and practical conversation starters include:

In other words, “Jeff, what business are you in? Now, while not everyone, most people love talking about themselves and their businesses, so the idea here is to get them started talking.

Most people also love to hear the sound of their own voice, so the icebreaker question is critical and essentially sets the tone and potential for interesting conversations.

Another excellent icebreaker question could be:

  • “So Jeff, what brings you here today?”

This open-ended question will clue you into their motivation for being at that event—their “why,” so to speak.

Now notice that I’ve repeated the person’s name on these sample ice breaker questions. Firstly, doing this will help burn that person’s name into your head, so you don’t forget it.

Secondly, people love the sound of their own name—so don’t be afraid to use it throughout your conversation.

Wrapping Up The 'Icebreaker' Phase

These icebreaker questions will help you get a feel for the other person and help you find common ground (if it exists).

If you practice intentional listening here, their responses will help you determine where to take the conversation next. Do you resonate with them or not?

If you’ve found a common interest and you resonate, move on to phase two: the rapport builder. If you don’t resonate, skip phase two and proceed to phase three: the graceful exit.

2. The 'Rapport Builder' Phase: Finding Common Ground

To be interesting, be interested.

The rapport builder phase is all about finding common ground. This is where you build upon the foundation you started in the icebreaker phase. You can find common ground by asking more detailed questions about the other person’s interests or sharing your interests.

It’s also a good idea to start talking about mutual acquaintances or shared experiences. This will help you build rapport and connect on a deeper level. Remember, the goal of small talk is not necessarily to make a sale but to create a connection. So take your time in this phase and really get to know the other person.

small talk - The 'Rapport Builder' Phase

Examples Of Rapport Builder Questions

A couple of simple, proven, and effective follow-up questions include:

  • So Jeff, how did you get into that business?
  • What types of challenges keep you up at night?
  • Jeff, help me out here. Draw me a mental picture. What does true success look like for you and your business?
  • What’s new in your industry these days? Any social events or trends that are shaping it?

If the situation permits, you can use one or two of these open-ended questions or more in your networking. However, be careful here not to dominate and monopolize someone’s time—especially at networking events.

Wrapping Up The 'Rapport Builder' Phase

These deeper-dive questions should clearly indicate whether or not to take this relationship to another level or simply remain cordial acquaintances.

Either way, proceed to phase 3.

3. The 'Graceful Exit' Phase: Your Exit Strategy

By this point, you have all the intel you need to determine your next course of action—to either explore the relationship further or not.

Exploring The Relationship Further

If you’re genuinely interested in this person and it appears to make sense to explore either doing business together or referring business to one another, exchange contact information so you can set up a time for some 1-on-1 networking.

Moving On

If you are clear that it doesn’t make sense to pursue this relationship further, it’s okay not to dive deeper into this relationship at this time. Time is finite. Respect your time and theirs as well. Do not lead them on or set false expectations.

Allow them to move on and find more suitable connections.

small talk - The 'Graceful Exit' Phase

How To Gracefully Leave A Conversation

How you leave a conversation is crucial as this is the last impression you make on that person. We’re not looking to create any animosity by rudely blowing someone off or walking away unexpectedly. As the title of this phase states, the key is to exit gracefully.

A critical difference between the types of small talk questions or statements you make in this phase and the previous two phases is that now you shift to using close-ended ones. For example:

  • Introduce the person to someone else that may be of genuine interest to them, and then politely excuse yourself. The dialogue can go like this: “Hey Cindy, I’d like you to meet Jeff. Jeff’s in the XYZ industry as well, and I just felt that you two should meet.” Now they exchange pleasantries, and you immediately exit the conversation by saying something like, “Well, you two probably have a bunch to talk about. Cindy, I’ll catch up with you later, and Jeff, it was great meeting you.”
  • Another example of a graceful exit may be: “I can certainly see some synergy between what you and I do. So can I give you a call next week to set up some time to talk further?”
  • Or, “It’s been great meeting you. Will I see you at future meetings?”
  • And lastly, “Wow, this is quite an event, don’t you think? Well, we should probably keep moving. It was great meeting you, Jeff!”

9 Common Mistakes Networkers Make When Engaging In Small Talk

Small talk is an essential part of networking, but making conversation is not always easy. And even when you do, there’s always the risk of making a mistake and saying the wrong thing. Here are some of the most common small talk mistakes that networkers make:

9 Common Small Talk Mistakes

1. Talking too much about themselves.

Small talk is supposed to be a two-way conversation, so don’t dominate it with stories about yourself. Instead, try to ask relevant questions and listen to what the other person has to say.

2. Being too serious.

Small talk is meant to be light and casual, so avoid getting bogged down in heavy topics like politics or religion. Stick to lighter topics like the weather or current events.

3. Talking about controversial topics.

Small talk is not the time to air your opinions on hot-button issues like abortion or gun control. steer clear of potentially controversial topics, and stick to safe subjects everyone can agree on.

4. Not having anything to say.

If you find yourself running out of things to say, try to ask open-ended questions that will prompt the other person to talk about themselves. This will give you something to respond to and keep the conversation going.

5. Interrupting.

Nothing kills a conversation faster than constant interruptions. Let the other person finish speaking before you jump in with your own comments.

6. Being negative.

Small talk is supposed to be positive and upbeat, so avoid complaining or being critical of others. Focus on finding things to compliment, and you’ll make a better impression.

7. Invading personal space.

This is a surefire way to make the other person feel uncomfortable and put them on the defense. Instead, give them a comfortable amount of space to work with.

8. Being a pushy salesperson.

Small talk is not the time to close the sale. Getting to know the other person first will build trust and make it more likely that they’ll do business with you down the road.

9. Failing to follow up.

Small talk is just the beginning of a conversation, so don’t forget to follow up after your initial meeting. Send a quick email or connect with the person on social media to keep the conversation going.

By avoiding these small talk mistakes, you’ll be well on your way to networking success. Just remember to keep the conversation light, positive, and focused on the other person, and you’ll be sure to make a good impression.

Small Talk FAQ for Successful Business Networking

Making small talk can be awkward, even for experienced networkers. So what are you supposed to say to someone you’ve just met? How can you keep the conversation going? And how do you avoid those dreaded moments of silence? We’ve put together a Small Talk FAQ to help make business networking a little easier.

Small Talk FAQ

Small talk is all about finding common ground, so start by asking questions about the other person. What do they do for a living? What brought them to the event? What are their interests outside of work? Asking questions shows that you're genuinely interested in getting to know them, and it gives you something to talk about.

Since you are seeking common ground with the person you're speaking with, opt for safe topics that are either neutral or positive. For example, you might talk about the weather, your favorite coffee shop, or a recent trip you took. You should generally avoid discussing controversial topics, such as politics or religion.

Once you've asked a few questions, listening carefully to the answers is important. This will give you clues about what to say next. For example, if the other person mentions that they love skiing, you could ask whether they've been able to ski much this winter. Or, if they're saying they're looking for a new job, you could ask if there's anything specific they're looking for. Again, active listening will help keep conversations flowing.

Suppose you struggle to think of something to say; simply comment on something around you. For example, if you're at a conference, you might mention the interesting keynote speaker you just saw.

Or, if you're at a networking event, you could ask the person you're talking to about their favorite part of the evening so far. Another option is to bring up a recent news story or trending topic you think the other person might be interested in.

Small talk can be helpful when you're networking, but there's a point where it's no longer productive.

If you're unsure whether the conversation has run its course, here are a few cues to look for.

  1. Check your body language. Are you leaning in or pulling away?
  2. Listen to the tone of the conversation. Is it friendly and light, or starting to feel forced?
  3. Pay attention to the other person's questions. Are they still asking about you, or have they started talking about themselves?

If you're no longer enjoying the conversation, or if it feels like it's going nowhere, it's probably time to move on.

Wrapping Up The 3 Phases Of Small Talk

Small talk is one of the most underrated conversational skills in business networking. It helps break the ice, find common ground, and establish a connection with potential clients and partners. So if you’re feeling nervous about making small talk, don’t worry – we’ve got you covered.

3 Phases of Small Talk

In this post, we outlined the three phases of small talk and gave you some tips to make each one work for you. But if you’re still feeling uncomfortable and want further help, give us a shout!

We offer private business coaching that can help you feel confident in your ability to network like a pro. So what are you waiting for? Apply today, and let us show you how easy it can be to make connections that matter.

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