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How to talk sporty at work — when you hate sports

Learning to talk about sports for business, whether you’re a fan or not, is invaluable in the workplace. Jen Mueller, a veteran sportscaster and founder of “Talk Sporty To Me,” gives her best tips as we prepare to head back into the office.
Friends cheering while watching sports on TV at home
The Good Brigade / Getty Images

“Did you catch the game last night?”

If you’re anything like me, you did not miss that dreaded question — or any similar sports chatter — with colleagues while we were working from home over the last 18 months.

But as many of us prepare to head back to the office this fall, water cooler small talk will also inevitably return. And that also means sports talk. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled to finally see colleagues and friends after this tumultuous year. And there are real career advantages to being in-person again too. Behavioral scientist Jon Levy argues that working remotely erodes trust between colleagues, and workers who come into the office will be better suited to form bonds with co-workers and take advantage of career growth opportunities.

But what if you hate sports, which are often big conversation starters and a gateway for colleagues to build bonds? After all, more than half of Americans, call themselves sports fans, including 66 percent of men and 51 percent of women.

The moment the sports banter starts, do you just leave for a cup of coffee, inevitably missing the moment the conversation transitions to business? Do you let your eyes go vacant and pray it will be over soon? I’m guilty of doing both. But Jen Mueller, a 20-year sportscaster who’s currently a sideline reporter for the Seattle Seahawks, has convinced me there’s a better way.

In 2009, Mueller founded “Talk Sporty To Me” to demonstrate how sports fandom can be used to connect in meaningful ways in business. It also gives professionals, especially women, the confidence to speak up.

“Having confidence in your communication skills is a game-changer,” said Mueller. “And everyone should have that opportunity.”

She has a whole curriculum about being able to talk (even just a little bit) sporty. Here are some of her best tips you can put into action with almost no effort.

Identify what is valuable to you

Even if you don’t spend the weekend watching football, do you like the Olympics or Tour de France? Do you enjoy your nephew’s Little League games, or do you join in a game of volleyball at the beach? What is it about those activities that bring you joy?

Cat Rakowski at a UNC basketball game.
Cat Rakowski at a UNC basketball game.Courtesy of Cat Rakowski.

For example, I graduated from the University of North Carolina, so college basketball is the one sport I follow with some regularity, and the UNC/Duke rivalry is so intense, I can find parallels with almost any rivalry in sports.

Mueller said you can often turn a conversation toward something that you have some knowledge about, which shows that you’re actively listening and willing to engage without rejecting the conversation entirely.

Do the work. Just a little.

Mueller suggested sports haters spend five minutes a day (or even five minutes a week!) tuning in to the top sports headlines to have a baseline awareness of what’s culturally relevant.

She even tweets a brief sports report on Monday mornings that serves this exact purpose. The Gist and The Daily Skimm also offer easily digestible newsletters to get you read-in quickly. All it takes is being able to deliver one 15-second sports headline to show that you pay some attention.

Or, if you frequently hear the name of a player, or you find out that your college is having a great year in baseball, Mueller suggested setting a Google alert to that name or team so you’ll be ready to discuss the moves they’re making.

Here’s another great tip: Mueller said if you hear people talking about an important game coming up, ask them who they think will win, and take note. Set a calendar alert, and send email to follow-up. This indicates that you’re willing to participate, that you follow-through, and that you can be trusted when the stakes are low. That all builds the groundwork for stronger connections in the future.

Not a fan? Fine. Be a detective.

Pay attention to what your colleagues are revealing about their values and their positions when they talk about sports. For example, during a recent interview with Peter Nicholas for The Atlantic, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell used a sports analogy and said he’s willing to do almost anything to put Republicans back in control of the Senate, which would make him Senate Majority Leader again.

“If you’re a football fan, it’s like the difference between being the offensive coordinator and a defensive coordinator,” McConnell told Nicholas. “The offensive coordinator has a better chance to score.” One could infer that sees political parties as opponents, not on the same team working cooperatively, and that he sees his life’s work as sport.

Not every interaction will be so on-the-nose, of course. But listen to how your colleagues talk about what they care about. For example, does one colleague know all the RBIs of his favorite player compared with the league? Remember that emphasis on figures when it’s time to pitch the next deck. Does another co-worker focus on getting the family together, building traditions and cheering for the home team? That’s an opening to focus on traditions and culture next time you’re hoping to win him or her over.

In any event, be nice.

If someone is bringing up a topic, they’re putting themselves out there, albeit in a small way. If you shut it down or roll your eyes, you’re saying that what they care about isn’t valid to you. Attacking people for their interests is always a bad idea – would you want to be mocked for yours?

That said, if the conversation about a player’s stats doesn’t seem to be slowing down, Mueller says it’s OK to try to turn the conversation toward something you care about, but make sure you suggest something you’d rather discuss rather than just spike the topic at hand.

Mueller recommended that you identify your objective and let that guide the conversation. If your objective is to make a memorable connection, to build trust, to be seen as involved in every step along the way, then don’t leave the field. Returning to the workplace after all this time affords us with opportunities to level up our game and try new things. And you never know, it could help you score your next big deal.

Cat Rakowski is an Emmy-winning journalist and a booking producer for MSNBC's “Morning Joe” and “Way Too Early with Kasie Hunt." She lives in Queens with her son, Lincoln. Follow her @catrakowski.