Why is networking so hard for many people? In part, it’s because of the challenge of making conversation with strangers.
In fact, the need to make conversation comes up fairly often in a professional context. Job interviews, corporate events, even meeting a new team member all require a certain amount of conversational skill. If you’re someone who struggles to fill that space — and most of us do, from time to time — these tips can help you get the ball rolling.
1. Smile and relax, and they will too.
It’s funny how emotions are contagious, but they really are. When you’re nervous and uncomfortable, you make other people feel that way, too. That’s not exactly a recipe for good conversation. So, take a deep breath and smile at the person you’re talking with — it will help you both relax a little.
2. Establish the who, why, and where.
Sometimes people try to skip over introductions and launch right into small talk when confronted with some idle time to fill with a stranger. But, that could cause you to miss out on an opportunity.
Say you’re at a networking event and you’re waiting in a line. Maybe you end up having a pleasant chat with the person standing behind you, but you never catch their name or learn much about who they are and what they do. You’ll never know how you might have connected with this person, and you’d have a hard time finding them later, say on social media, for a follow-up if you tried. So, get these details out of the way at the very beginning of a chat. Plus, by beginning by saying who you are, what you’re doing, and where you’ve come from, you’ve also broken the ice and started the conversational ball rolling.
3. Make eye contact and connect with a person, not a role.
Sometimes, when we’re nervous, we can forget that the people we’re talking with are just people, like us. There’s something about making a little eye contact that breaks down that barrier, especially when paired with the smile mentioned above. Use the name of the person you’re chatting with, once they’ve given it to you, and try to remember they’re human just like you. Focusing on connecting with an individual, rather than just seeing their title or role, should help you relax and enjoy the conversation a little more.
4. Ask questions.
Rather than trying to fill the empty space with your own thoughts and ideas, try asking the person you’re chatting with a question or two. There are so many different topics you could bring up — but focusing on what’s going on around you might be an easy place to start. Ask what they think about the matter at hand or about something that’s going on around you. Or, ask for more background on their professional story. People love to talk about themselves, so these kinds of questions tend to go a long way.
5. Focus on putting the other person at ease.
The people who are really good at small talk in a business context are the ones who are confident and comfortable enough to focus on putting others at ease. The real purpose of casual chit-chat is to establish a connection and find common ground. Focus on leading this charge rather than on your own nervous thoughts and feelings. Make your objective to put the other person at ease rather than to get more comfortable yourself. This should help you get out of your own head — and that’s often a good thing when nerves are involved.
Conversation tip: Try to put the other person at ease, rather than getting more comfortable yourself.
6. Try not to rush or panic.
Demonstrating that you’re comfortable will help the person you’re speaking with feel that way too, so take your time with the conversation. If there is a quiet moment, don’t say something just to fill the space. Take a deep breath and think about what you’re going to say first.
Try not to rush or panic during these perfectly normal pauses in the conversation. Instead, use them to demonstrate to the other person, and yourself, that you’re quite comfortable and more than willing to give the conversation some time and thought.
7. Do some planning in advance.
Sometimes it helps to have some conversational ideas planned out in advance. Think about three or four things you can talk about, or questions you can ask, before a big meeting with clients or a networking event. Plan it out in the car on the way, for example, or in the shower. Pulling one of these ideas into conversations will get easier, and feel more natural, as you gain experience with the practice.
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