Connecting with colleagues at work is among the best things you can do to improve your effectiveness in the workplace. And while it’s easy to lean over to Amy in the next cubicle and ask her how her weekend went, when it comes to a more senior colleague in the corner office, the idea of starting a conversation can be intimidating. So what should you say when you hop on an elevator and find yourself one on one with the managing director?
Ask About Them
Generally speaking, people feel comfortable, and enjoy, talking about themselves. While it might be intimidating to start the conversation, the easiest way to get it going is to ask a question to which you know that senior colleague has an answer. Questions about their commute, hobbies and television shows you know they enjoy, or a recent vacation are all lighthearted, easy, and enjoyable. Who doesn’t like talking about the trout they bagged over the weekend, or the latest storyline on Scandal? The point of these conversations is to build some common ground so the next time you find yourself in the elevator you can see if they enjoyed the Mad Men finale as much as you did.
Plan the Conversation to Match the Situation
Monday morning is probably not the best time to ask your supervisor if she has any plans for next weekend – you don’t want it to seem like that’s the only thing on your mind. And an elevator ride that’s going to end in thirty seconds is not the forum to ask about how she chose this line of work. But if the two of you are taking a fifteen minute cab ride back to the office, it might be the perfect time to ask why she chose this field. Think about both the time and the situation. If she’s poring over papers for an impending negotiation, it may be best to give her space. But if the two of you are riding back to the office together after that victorious negotiation, it might be the perfect time to ask what experiences in her career she found most valuable in building her negotiating skills.
Don’t always run to common ground. Embrace the differences.
Although you may be at different stages in life, this isn’t an obstacle to conversation; it’s an opportunity. There is a lot of value in being a younger voice in the office, and this includes small talk with senior colleagues. Does he have a teenager starting the college search process? As someone who has gone through the search process more recently, you may have some insight on the common application or taking the ACTs that can help shed light on what his teenagers can expect. And knowing new, trendy restaurants in town because you blog about them, or which food trucks are out today because you follow them on Twitter, are bits of conversational currency that can help your relationship grow.
If you discover a topic that you connected on be sure to follow up. Did you find a new record store that carries the vintage vinyls you both love? Find a time a few weeks later to swing by your senior colleague's office and mention it. Or if your favorite team just won the championship, stop by to celebrate (or, if your rival won, stop by to lament). Did you both express frustration with the morning drive to work? If you’ve found an app that helps you avoid potholes and traffic jams, let your senior colleague know. This is another way that you, as a younger employee, can bring a fresh perspective to the conversation and a solution to a problem they may not have been able to find on their own.
Know what not to Ask
Not every topic is good for discussion, especially with colleagues whom you don’t know as well. Avoid politics, religion, and company gossip. Be mindful when discussing current events as those can quickly be politicized. And tread carefully around questions of family and career unless your senior colleague brings it up. Let him dictate on these more sensitive topics. If he mentions in conversation a great restaurant he went to with his family, feel free to ask more about that experience. But still be mindful of how you ask those questions.
Conversations with senior colleagues are a great way to build out your workplace network. While it may be intimidating to approach the senior members of your organization, if you do it with confidence you'll find you have much in common and just as much to contribute to a conversation. And check back here for more tips on connecting with those higher up in your organization, and more ways to grow your workplace network.