For many people, the scariest thing that they can do is speak in public. The second scariest thing is to strike up a conversation with somebody they don’t know. It’s not that they don’t like people or are afraid of people, they just don’t want to be put in a situation where they could be embarrassed or end up feeling awkward whilst talking about something boring (like the weather).
However, we as people are social beings by nature so by this very definition, we need to interact with other people on some level. Perhaps it’s at work, at the local supermarket, or even at a networking event. Being able to communicate and engage with others is a skill which can serve you well. Friendships, relationships, and professional connections depend heavily on connecting and building rapport with others. Knowing that is the easy part, but how can we communicate effectively if we don’t know what to say, or if we don’t have confidence to hold the conversation after the initial introductions?
What many people do when they talk with somebody they don’t know is go into “job interview” mode and ask questions such as “where are you from?”, “what do you do?”, and all those kinds of questions which your conversation partner has probably answered multiple times during the past hour or so. Whilst it’s important to at least ask some general questions to kick things off, it is important to show genuine curiosity about what the other person has to say on one point before moving onto the next point.
To illustrate, here is an example of how a networking conversation typically plays out, with “Person A” being the leader of the conversation and “Person B” is the responder. Just like a dance, a conversation goes well if there is a leader to dictate the flow, especially in a situation when both parties don’t really know each other.
Person A: Where are you from?
Person B: San Francisco
Person A: That’s great, I heard it’s nice there. What do you do?
Person B: As in my job? I am a project manager
Person A: I see. What company do you work for?
Person B: Sorry, I got to go now. Nice talking to you
In this example, the conversation ends up being pretty boring and becomes a question and answer session. Person B loses interest quickly and wants to go somewhere else whilst Person A is left standing there not knowing what to do next.
To increase the chances of a conversation flowing well, Person A needs to show Person B genuine interest, and ask open ended questions. Open ended questions are questions that don’t lead to one word answers (such as “yes” or “no”), and is normally phrased with a “why, how, what”. The advantage of open ended question is that it opens up possibilities for further probing questions, leading to curiosity from the person responding to those questions. Not only that, it makes the other person feel that you are genuinely are interested in what they say, giving them the motivation to speak more and ask you questions in return.
This is an example of a conversation where open questions and genuine interest in shown from Person A to Person B:
Person A: Where are you from?
Person B: San Francisco
Person A: Hey, that’s a great place. I haven’t been there myself but I heard great things about the area. What do you think of San Fran?
Person B: Well, it’s a great area with really nice people and with a big techie scene in Silicon Valley. I love it there
Person A: Ah yes, Silicon Valley is located in the South of San Franciso Bay right?
Person B: Yes that’s correct! I see a lot of people from Apple and Google sitting in cafes with their laptops doing coding and technical stuff. These people must have a lot of freedom since they can work from anywhere
Person A: Yeah, I think so too. So, you mentioned that you see a lot of techie guys. You must be a techie person too right?
Person B: Not really! I use apps on my phone but I don’t know how to program them! How about you? What do you do?
The conversation in this example flows a lot better than the first example right? That’s because Person A showed genuine interest in where Person B is from and held that interest through open questions and further questions that expanded on the topic. This is important as it keeps both parties engaged and actively participating.
Apart from showing interest and asking open ended questions, here are some other tips to help ensure that a conversation goes smoothly:
- Display positive body language by maintaining eye contact and an open posture (avoid folding your arms)
Communication involves both verbal and non-verbal language so it’s important that your body complements your words when you want to show interest in what the other person is saying. Also a note about eye contact: maintaining eye contact is important but continuously staring at the other person without looking elsewhere is just plain creepy. Look to the side or upwards every now and then as not only does it help the other person feel more comfortable, but it also shows that you are thinking about what to say.
- Space out your questions
Ask a singular question and stay on that question before asking another follow up question. In other words, avoid asking multiple questions. A multiple question could be something like asking “Where are you from? How long have you lived there?”. This confuses the other party as they may not know which question to answer first. As singular questions and then let the other questions follow on naturally.
- Ensure that you fully focus on the person
This means not glancing down at your phone every ten seconds or looking around the room to search for a friend. To engage the other person is to ensure that you give them your full attention and focus and avoid distractions that can derail the conversation. Conversations flow best when both parties are fully engaged.
For business and personal development:
These tips will help you develop relationships and avoid that awkward feeling when talking to a person you just met. Networking is extremely important in today’s world, with communication skills gradually becoming a lost art as people become increasingly comfortable in messaging on their phones. Learn how to communicate well and it can open many doors and opportunities for you. Besides, it’s not what you know that counts most, but who you know!
Do you find this article valuable? If so, check out the book “11 Laws Of Likeability” by Michelle Tillis Lederman. You can receive the book immediately via e-book format (Kindle).