I'm regarded as an "extrovert" so I'm supposed to like people and be able to start a conversation with people I don't know or don't know well easily, right? Wrong. Introverts, take solace, even us extroverts still shy away from initiating conversations, especially when we feel like the odd (wo)man out. I find it especially jarring in these types of situations where I pride myself on creating connections and it's very clear I'm far behind the others who have created connections already.
Luckily, there were a few others like me and, luckily, I wrote some tips on just this situation for my clients a few years ago, so I dug it up (from memory, of course, or else that would be a little weird and then make it pretty justifiable why I didn't have anyone to talk to. :)
Hope you find some of these tips helpful!
Conversations Starters and Stoppers
It can be nerve-wracking walking into a situation where you don’t really know anybody, whether it is at a conference or a spouse’s work function. The good news is you’re probably not alone and there are others who feel the exact same way you do. Rather than be the one who waits for someone to come talk to you, take the opportunity to initiate the conversation. Who knows? You might end up making a new business contact or even a new best friend.
The number one tip is to be natural! However, for some of us our “natural” tendencies are to avoid starting conversations with strangers at all costs, so here is a list of tips to help you start and continue conversations with people you’ve just met or don’t know very well.
- Introduce yourself: People tend to overthink the start of a conversation. The easiest (and most natural way) to start a conversation is saying, “Hi, I’m ___________.”
- Come prepared: If you don’t feel comfortable making small talk, it can help to think about your environment and audience first and develop a list of potential topics or questions. For example, if you’re attending a wedding, some potential topics might be how each of you knows the bride and/or groom, funny stories you know about the bride/groom, opinions about the décor/music/food, or stories about past weddings you’ve attended.
- Listen more than you speak: In general, people like talking about themselves (there are always exceptions to the rule though--watch for cues of discomfort), so if you can hone in on topics of interest to the other person (see the next tip) and ask open-ended questions, this will make the situation more comfortable for the two of you.
- Tailor the conversation to the other person: Although there are always topics to avoid and there are usually topics that are considered “safe” (e.g., weather, kids, pets), the person you are conversing with will be much more engaged in the conversation if you can hone in on areas of interest to them. It might take you using the funnel technique to figure out what those interest areas are. Start with general topics and pay close attention to non-verbal cues to measure the other’s interest level (e.g. lifts head up, eyes sparkle, excitability in voice).
- Combine general remarks with questions: Although it is advisable to get the other person talking about themselves, if you ask too many questions, you can start to sound like a professional interviewer or, worse, just plain nosy and intrusive. A good rule of thumb is to preface questions with general statements or remarks. For example, rather than asking, “Who has been your favourite presenter?” you can say something like, “Wow, it’s been a packed day. Who has been your favourite presenter so far?” It sounds more natural and doesn’t make the other person feel like he or she is at the Spanish Inquisition.
- Let the other person know you’re interested: Make sure you’re giving cues that you are interested in what they’re saying such as nodding your head, responding to their questions, and asking follow-up questions.
- Not paying attention/listening: Nothing will stop a conversation quicker than you not listening or paying attention to the speaker. Even if you are listening, watch that you’re not giving off conflicting verbal and non-verbal cues such as looking around, avoiding eye contact, interrupting, and even never talking (see the above tip).
- Talking Taboo Topics: Most of us know the big three taboo topics to avoid: sex, politics, and religion. However, you also want to watch that you use small talk just for what it is: to build and establish rapport and commonalities. It can be very difficult to do if you ask questions the other party deems to be too invasive or if you make strong statements to which the other party is opposed (E.g. stating your strong opposition to the war in Iraq only to find out the person’s brother is in the military).
- Focusing on Boring Topics: Just as taboo topics can turn someone off, topics that are too boring or uninteresting can lose the other’s interest. Although we might consider work, weather, kids, or pets pretty “safe” topics, many see conversations that turn to weather or work as an indication that you couldn’t come up with anything else to talk about while others may not have or, in fact, like kids or pets.
- One-upping: There is a fine line between sharing a commonality with a person and coming across as trying to one-up them. For instance, if someone indicates that they have a child in grade 3 at your child’s school, sharing a commonality would be, “Oh, my son goes there too! What do you think about the new playground they built.” whereas coming across as one-upping might sound like this: “Oh, my son goes there too! However, he’s in the gifted program, so he doesn’t know a lot of the kids in the regular program.”
- Not following the law of reciprocity: As mentioned, a conversation indicates that both parties take turns speaking and listening. Although it is fine if one party takes on the bulk of the talking, in general, it’s a safer bet to take on the bulk of the listening if you’re trying to build rapport with someone. That being said, you still need to play a role in facilitating the conversation by asking questions, making appropriate remarks, and, occasionally, adding your own comments or stories to allow connections and commonalities to be made. Otherwise, the person may walk away with a good feeling about the conversation, but that’s about it—their memory will only be of what they talked about, not who they met.
- Not having an exit strategy: Sometimes, no matter how hard you attempt to engage others in a conversation, they are not interested for a number of different reasons. If you’ve tried a few different topics to see if they can lead the conversation to areas of their interest to no avail, then it’s time to exit gracefully. Events that involve food or beverages always provide a great exit, but it’s always nice to leave the conversation with a friendly closure, such as, “I spotted some delicious appetizers over there—I think I’m going to grab some before I head out. It was really nice meeting you. Enjoy your day.”
If all of these fail, there's always Flip Cup. There seems to be a direct correlation between the flow of alcohol and the flow of conversations. However, what do you do in situation where liquid courage isn't advisable? Any tips to add?