Month: April 2013

Small talk your way to a great negotiation

In our business English classrooms we’re used to teaching transactional language –the kind of language that our course participants need to use to get things done.  This might be emailing or telephoning, or it could be conducting interviews and giving appraisals.  What we often overlook, however, is the equally important relational language which learners need, the language which helps them ‘make friends and influence people’, if you like.

Small talk is a rapport building strategy which helps to develop trust, a willingness to cooperate and the sharing of information.  Surely an essential skill then?  I certainly think so.  Small talk plays a vital role in a wide number of communication tasks.  In negotiations, the development of rapport fosters the cooperative behaviour which is needed to achieve an efficient outcome.  This is even more effective if the negotiation partners communicate face to face, but emails and telephone calls which begin with small talk and rapport building are also more successful then communication where rapport isn’t established.


It seems to me that, at a time when the quantity of communication our learners participate in is increasing, and the number of channels of communication is constantly expanding, we need to ensure that our students of business English focus on both relationship-building strategies and not just getting things done.  One way is to integrate rapport building and small talk into a wider variety of the functional situations which we present in class.  I’ve put together a lesson plan on this topic.  It’s available here and aims to demonstrate how small talk is an important stage before a negotiation.  The participants can identify strategies for making and maintain small talk, before moving on smoothly to the negotiation.  They can then take part in a role play before creating their own simulation of a negotiation situation which they face frequently.

If you’re interested in learning more about small talk and rapport building in business, then join me for my BESIG weekend workshop online on 5th May (The business English special interest group of the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language).  I look forward to seeing you there!