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Small Talk is Just Too Small Now

It's time to size up our conversations at work.


The quality of our relationships at work is going downhill. Amidst this remote work environment that’s here to stay, we’ve lost more than just leftover cake in the break room. Does anyone else miss their work spouse? Gone are the days of spontaneity, shared #IRL experiences and that nuance we all miss from being in the same room with others. This closeness with colleagues helped to create a cultural fabric of trust and a work environment where we were accountable to one another, felt safe to share bold ideas, and had the courage to have hard conversations. We all know relationships are the bedrock of organizational success — so, then, how are we to build & sustain them in our new 2-dimensional world?


During my search for answers, I was surprised to see articles, like this one, and this one, elevating small talk as a viable solution. Small talk, they say, should be a discrete agenda item in virtual meetings so employees can continue to build relationships and trust. I don’t know about you, but whenever I hear the term small talk I cringe. I imagine myself at a cocktail party, stuck in the corner with a stranger talking about “what I do.” I agree that small talk can be helpful for navigating informal social settings, but it wilts as an effective approach to build trust. Trust is built over time by having meaningful conversations that help people get to know others, feel seen and express true parts of themselves. This simply can’t happen by talking about work or the weather. But…what if we started asking different questions?


Enter: medium talk. As the name implies, it’s bigger than small talk. It’s a conversation style that prompts people to share life experiences and what matters most to them. One of my favorite questions that sparks medium talk is, “If you had a megaphone, what message would you share with the world today, and why?” By simply shifting our line of questioning, people are presented with the chance to share a little more about themselves and what they value. Magic happens in these types of conversations. We not only get to expand our world view by learning about how our coworkers experience life, but when our shared humanity is revealed we realize how much we actually have in common with others (hint: it’s a lot). Medium talk has the power to fundamentally shift the quality and fabric of our relationships to help make remote work not feel so remote. But, it must be done on purpose.


At work, relationship-building used to be completely self-governed by employees — anyone want to grab a drink after work? Now, without the luxury of spontaneity, organizations are challenged to play more of an active role in facilitating connection among employees. Leaders can leverage the power of medium talk to do just that. Instead of scheduling another company Zoom Happy Hour (Zoom fatigue anyone?), host a different kind of event that gives your team a chance to feel seen, laugh, build trust, and get to know each other in ways that improve the way they work together. When medium talk is intentionally structured at work, it accelerates the trust-building process and recreates that fabric of trust we used to build between the #IRL meetings.


Given all the important work that lies ahead of us, small talk is just too small now.