It's almost time for the annual holiday parties, and I know some of you are dreading the awkwardness of mixing with people you don't know very well. Where does this anxiety come from? I'm not a psychologist, but I'm sure it's all tangled up in our unhealthy tendency to compare ourselves with others. If that's a problem for you, you might enjoy an earlier post called “Stop Comparing Yourself To Others: A Six Step Plan.”
Break the ice by starting a conversation
I'm a huge proponent of the adage “Action conquers fear” (attributed in some places to author Pete Nivio Zarlenga). If I'm afraid or nervous about something, I find that taking almost any action, even a baby step, will displace the fear and give me some momentum to continue. That's why I've found it so helpful, especially when going to a function with lots of strangers, to know how to start a conversation. Often that small gesture will, at least, keep the event from being a disaster and, at best, lead to a delightful relationship or even a friendship.
Chris Colin and Rob Baedeker, authors of What To Talk About, answered this question beautifully. “People dismiss small talk as superficial and boring. People are wrong. Small talk is an essential part of the social contract. It allows us to engage and identify common ground with safe, low-risk topics — it's an on-ramp.” You never know when that stranger at the party might be your future boss…or spouse!
Others are in the same boat
No matter how comfortable others may appear to be in a social setting, I guarantee you there are more than you think who are as uncomfortable as you are. Sometimes you can spot the wallflowers immediately and rescue them from their own fear. Other times, you may prefer to jump into a conversation with someone clearly outgoing and friendly.
Think of it as a game or an adventure. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose, but the upside potential is far greater than the downside.
The secret to meaningful engagement
I know this post is about starting a conversation, but I'd be remiss if I didn't share this simple secret about engaging in a conversation: Learn how to show the other person you are genuinely interested. Listen more than you talk. Give them personal space, but turn towards them and look at them. Use their name a couple of times during the conversation. Show your interest with affirming body language, appropriate comments, or questions that invite the other person to elaborate.
Showing a genuine interest in someone can make you more attractive than any outfit or beauty regimen. It's human nature, and successful people adept at interacting with others have mastered this one skill beyond all others.
Some pre-event planning can help
You might find it helpful to ask your host or hostess who's coming to the party. Get them to tell you a little about those you don't know so you have some information on which to start a conversation.
When I go to a conference or business event, I try to have specific people in mind I'd like to meet. I've had good luck sending them a tweet or email or Facebook message ahead of time and tell them I hope to have a chance to introduce myself to them. Then when I actually go up to them at the event, I can remind them of that previous contact. I've been pleasantly surprised at how receptive they are to this approach, even if they are keynote speakers or “stars” of the event.
Some business events provide a list of attendees ahead of time. If you're ambitious, you can look some of them up on LinkedIn and get lots of conversation-starting topics.
These conversation-starting tips have worked for me:
- Introduce yourself. Unless I'm carrying a drink and food, I always do this while shaking hands, but this is optional. Be prepared to remember the other person's name if they give it to you. Repeating it back is a good way to both remember it and make sure you have it right. Never be afraid to ask them twice if you didn't catch it the first time. Most will appreciate your effort to learn their name.
- My favorite conversation starter is to say, “So, how do you happen to be part of this motley crew?” This usually elicits enough of a response to suggest other things to talk about. For instance, if you're at a party thrown by Bob and Susan and the person's response is, “Bob and Susan's children are in the same school as mine,” this can open up a line of conversation about family. If they say, “Bob and I work together,” this can open up a line of conversation about their profession.
- If I find myself next to someone in a crowd at an event, I've had good luck starting a conversation by saying, “I've been looking forward to this all day. How was your day?”
- Often I'll ask someone how long they've lived in the area? Whether they're a native or a recent arrival, the response usually opens up the conversation.
- Author Ben Schott has a brilliant way to join a group of people talking together: “Hi, can I buy a ticket to this conversation?
Unique situations can lend themselves to conversation starters:
- If there's music, you can make a comment about it.
- At a bar, you can ask for a drink recommendation.
- At a community event, you can talk about your neighborhood, town, or city.
- At work, you can ask someone what they plan to do for the weekend or find out what is their favorite thing to do with out-of-town company.
- If the other person has a pet with them, or you know they have one, it's often easy to start a conversation about that.
Don't make these common conversation mistakes
- Asking too many questions can be unnerving. If you realize you've been doing this, you can diffuse the situation by saying, “I'm sorry I've been asking too many questions. The interview is over.” Then excuse yourself or take another approach.
- Don't reveal personal information too quickly. A stranger doesn't need or want to know about your latest medical problem or your fears and anxieties.
- Don't ask questions that could lead to a painful or uncomfortable response. Asking about children when they haven't mentioned whether they have any could be awful if they've just lost a child to death or divorce. Asking about employment when they haven't mentioned it first could be awkward if they've just been fired.
- Don't spend too much time talking about yourself. This sounds obvious, but I've found myself doing this, especially when the other person is great at engaging and seems to want to know about me.
Disengaging is not failure
No matter how charming you are—or how skilled in the art of conversation—some people just don't want to talk to you. Don't take it personally. Just excuse yourself politely and move on.
Now that I've broken the ice, what can you share from your own experience about starting conversations?