Some skills, you’re born with, others can be developed over time and through much practice end up appearing like the former. I know this because I’ve done it, particularly in one area…networking. Does that word make you want to duck your head and find safety inside your little comfort zone? You’re not alone; let me see if I can help.
Am I the best networker out there, absolutely not, but this used to be SUPER AWKWARD for me and I’ve certainly come a long way. I remember going to church as a family and my mother’s favorite part was after service, visiting with friends and acquaintances. She called it visiting; I call it talking, because you’re not traveling anywhere, just exchanging words. Through my child ears, it sounded like a song and dance of niceties, rather than meaningful connection, and I’m not in to that surface level stuff. In those moments, I was more interested in the Sunday brunch buffet waiting at the Mexican restaurant down the road.
In college, my inability to carry on small conversations really showed up during rush freshman year. The first weekend, I attended events at 19 sorority houses and spoke to multiple people inside each. Crash. And. Burn. I yawned, didn’t know what to say next and remember blankly staring around the room desperate for the other person to carry the conversation.
It wasn’t until I got into a sales position during summers through college that I began to understand the skill of building rapport. Thankfully, in this arena, it was for a fairly limited few minutes at each appointment. I’d also been given a sales script and taught the power of giving a compliment to get someone talking. My conversational game immediately grew by leaps and bounds, but it was fairly canned and I didn’t know how to translate this into other areas of my life.
Continued practice and stumbling through situations would have offered some improvement, but thankfully I happened across a class in the University of Colorado continuing education bulletin entitled “The Fine Art of Small Talk”. And all by myself, I attended. I don’t know what to expect, but I certainly didn’t anticipate gaining critical tools that would be applied in about every conversation with new people for the next 18 years. Debra Fine was her name and I purchased her cassette tapes. Though it’s been years since I’ve listened (who has a cassette player anymore) her words combined with my experiences have taught me the following:
1. Act like you are the host of the event. There is something to be said for making eye contact, extending a hand and offering a friendly greeting with your name. It’s a simple but powerful way to builds confidence in potential relationship as well as in you. Also, it blatantly pushes any awkward silence to the side and immediately the entire event feels friendlier, all because you now know someone’s name!
2. Ask open ended questions. This one is brilliant! When you ask open ended questions to another person, it simply gets them talking and takes the pressure off of you to say words. For the other person, it feels great to be genuinely heard. The person doing more of the talking in a conversation generally feels a higher level of connection to the party that’s doing the listening. So, it’s common for me to think up 3-5 open ended questions I can readily ask as I’m driving to an event. Generally though, a fantastic place to begin is simply, “Tell me about yourself?”
3. Life gives clues. Everyone walking around is giving off clues about their interests, career, family, hobbies and life. Open your eyes and begin a conversation with what you notice.
a. You’re at the same event…”How did you find out about this event?” “How do you know Sally?” “What are you hoping to get out of this function?” “Can you fill me in on what to expect?”
b. What are they wearing…”What did you think of the (sports team of the hat they are wearing) season last year?” “Your purse/ shoes/ glasses/ suit/ tie is fantastic, where did you find it?”
c. Look around the room…”Tell me about this picture/ piece of art/ award?”
4. Use the answer they give as a clue for the next question. When I learned this, my conversational world opened up! I went from asking random question to random question to understanding how to create the structure and framework for a logical, more in-depth conversation. Not to mention, what people are willing to share is fascinating! Then, coaching school built upon this by learning to listen with genuine, almost childlike curiosity. It’s a deeper level of paying attention that allows higher quality questions to surface in the conversation.
5. If there’s something you want to talk about, ask them a question along those lines. More often than not, at some point in the conversation they’ll reciprocate by asking that same question back. “How did you decide to go into your line of work?” “Is there a specific person or type of person you want to meet at this event?” “What are you most enjoying about your business right now?” “What’s the next vacation/concert/bucket list item you have planned?”
6. Know how to excuse yourself. We have all needed to exit a conversation and some methods are more graceful than others. Yesterday I learned of a friend who was trying to strike up a conversation with someone at the gym and while he was in mid-sentence, the other person just walked away! People! In any scenario, a trusty strategy is to wait for a pause in conversation and say a variation of the following, “It was a pleasure talking to you, however, I need to leave/ say hello to insert name / make a quick call.” If you would like to pick back up where you left off, ask for a business card or contact information and offer to reach out at a later time.
As I’m preparing for a speaking engagement on this exact topic, opportunities are surfacing where I can again, up my networking game. Oprah said, “I believe luck is preparation meeting opportunity.” We are all on a journey to somewhere. Both personally and professionally it’s relationships and events that can offer pivotal moments where that path charts a new course. What are you doing to prepare yourself for a little luck? Hopefully this helps!
If you’re struggling with understanding the journey you’re on, or have blocks preventing you from stepping out, coaching can help. Feel free to set up a complimentary coaching session and we can discuss the clarity you’re seeking.