Updated: Jul 6, 2020
Every week, I meet strangers. That’s what I do for a living. I walk into a room full of people who I don’t know and facilitate training programs or get on a stage and speak to hundreds of people. Usually the audience is business professionals, once in awhile I speak to kids. Sometimes the training program is mandatory, which means the people in the room have to be there, and sometimes the training program is full of people who want to be there to learn something new. My preference, as the instructor, is to work with employees who want to be in the room and are open to learning something new.
Either way, being able to initiate a conversation is key to creating a comfortable learning environment and comfortable work environment. After all, people don’t care what you know until they know that you care. Before I start most training programs or speaking engagements, I try to introduce myself to everyone who enters the room and have a brief conversation. I consciously work the room. Here are a few tricks that I have learned during the past 25 years of being in front of strangers.
The conversation is not about you, it’s about the other person. Speaking to a stranger is like peeling back an onion. You have no idea what the inside looks like until you take the time to peel away the surface. It takes time to truly get to know someone.
Look at the other person and smile. Your face speaks volumes. When people walk into my training class, I always look at them and smile. When you smile it looks like you want to be where you are. It looks like you are approachable. It looks like you care about what you are doing. A smile is a universal sign for goodness.
Say hi or good morning. Then introduce yourself. “Hi, I’m Regina. It’s nice to meet you.” Typically, in a business setting, I will shake hands with whoever I am meeting and communicate my first and last name. We could spend days talking about the handshake, not too firm, not too wimpy and not a lot of up and down shakes. Reach out your hand, connect palms and shake while making eye contact. When I am in a casual setting, like sitting on a ski lift chair, I won’t shake hands or say my name but I might say, “Hi, it sure is a beautiful day, what brings you to the mountain?”
Remember the other person’s name. Years ago, Dale Carnegie wrote a book about how to make friends and influence others. He wrote an entire chapter about the importance of remembering a person’s name. During the conversation, repeat the name a few times. When you repeat the name, you will have a better chance of remembering the other person’s name. You can also ask the other person if you are pronouncing their name correctly.
Ask an open-ended question which will get the other person talking. It might be as simple as “What brings you here today?” or a bit more relevant to the setting “What do you think of global warming?” “What is your greatest challenge as a manager?”
Sometimes sharing a sincere compliment is a great way to start a conversation. “That’s a beautiful bracelet, where did you find such a pretty piece of jewelry?”
Be present and listen when the other person starts talking, it’s your turn to be quiet and engaged. Pay attention to what the other person is saying. Respond with interest. If you can make an intelligent comment, go ahead and do so. If you don’t know about the topic, that’s okay too. I might say, “I really don’t know anything about global warming but it sure sounds interesting.”
Stay away from hot topics. When I am getting to know a person, I don’t want to aggravate the person by talking about politics, religion or any other controversial topic. Besides no one cares what I think. People typically care about what they think, not what you think.
Learn how to politely end a conversation. Some people like to talk, as a matter of fact they will go on and on and on if you let them. When I am listening to a person who never shuts up, I will wait till they pause and then politely excuse myself by saying, “It’s been so nice chatting, I have to go say hello to Mr. X.”
It’s your choice to start a conversation or not. When I am working with new business clients or when I am in a networking situation, knowing how to start a conversation is very useful. I hope some of these tips help.