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Whether it’s Holiday gatherings or everyday networking events and opportunities, knowing how to start, deepen, manage, and even exit conversations is an invaluable skillset. So, today I’ll share four questions I’m frequently asked on these topics and provide answers that may help you navigate your next social encounters with grace, confidence, and ease.

How do I get a conversation started, especially with someone I don’t know?  First and foremost, please put away your smart phone. Second, do your best to stop the fear mongering voices in your head. Take a deep breath, relax, and remember you are awesome! Assume others will like you. (It’s highly likely they will!)  Next, follow these steps:

  • Look for someone standing off to themselves.
  • Approach the person (if they aren’t already in close proximity).
  • Make friendly eye contact and smile.
  • Extend your hand for a handshake or fist bump.
  • Offer a greeting. (“Hello, I’m [insert your name].”)

This is Social Savviness 101, and it’s something every adult should know and practice. (Young people should also. So parents, teach this to your kids!) Don’t hang around awkwardly, waiting for others to approach you. Accept the responsibility of your own socialization success and take action. Do this and your life and career will be changed forever. Trust me on this.

What do I say after I’ve introduced myself?  Here’s a little secret: being a good conversationalist isn’t about what you say. It’s about what you ask. Why? Because questions show curiosity and interest in others. Questions also make you look good and make the other person feel interesting and important. And as a little bonus, questions can direct the conversation to topics you find interesting. So, start building your list of good conversation-generating questions now; the kind that require more than a one-word answer. Here are a few examples. Note they start off kind of small-talky, then move on to more interesting territory.

  • What made you decide to attend this event?
  • How do you know the organizer / the host?
  • What do you do when you’re not at places like this?
  • What do you do? Do you love it?
  • What keeps you busy besides work? Any hobbies or interests?
  • Tell me three things about you. (Technically not a question, but it still allows the conversation to go deeper.)
  • What do the next few months look like for you? Any big plans or projects?
  • Who has inspired you the most this year?
  • What are you most proud of accomplishing this year?
  • What books or shows have inspired you or kept you entertained?

Sure, you could fire out a lot of questions, one right after the other, but you don’t want to sound like an interrogator. Also consider that a big part of a conversation is listening attentively to the other person’s response once you’ve asked the question. Then you can follow up with questions or comments that make sense and relate to what has been said.  But don’t hijack the conversation and make it all about you. Additionally, try not to one-up the other person in any way.

As an aside, I think what often happens in conversation is this: while the other person is talking, we get distracted, anxious, or caught up in our own thoughts. We think we need to be preparing what to say or ask next or we float off to some other part of our lives. As a result, we don’t really hear what the other person is saying. Then we are caught unprepared, and our next comment, question, or the dead silence seems… awkward. Being attentive is key!

Speaking of listening…

How much should I listen versus talk?  For some people, even introverts, talking is a total release and a way to deal with nerves. Don’t get caught up in this. Similarly, don’t freeze up. There is a formula to follow.  In one-on-one exchanges, strive to listen at least 60% of the time and talk the other 40%. In bigger groups “divide the conversation pie” equally. Four people? Everyone gets to speak 25% of the time and listen 75%.  Five people:  20% and 80%. The more people, the more we listen.  It can be challenging, but awareness of the formula helps.

Another guideline is to talk in 40-second segments. Then take a breath and let the other person talk. Obviously, you don’t want to carry a timer with you. That would be weird. But you can practice at home. Ask yourself a question, then set the timer and see if you can offer an articulate response in 40 seconds or less.  You may be surprised at how fast —or how slow — 40 seconds goes by.

What do I do when a conversation becomes awkward, boring, one-sided, or unpleasant?  You could try to shift the topic or mood by asking an out-of-the-blue question or comment. Or you can simply ask to talk about something else. Sometimes you will have to interrupt a non-stop talker. (“You know, Bill, if I could please interject my thoughts…”)  If you’ve lost hope (and it happens), simply excuse yourself and find another conversation partner.  If the conversation has taken highly technical, negative, contentious, dominating, or even upsetting turn, just walk away. That’s right. Just walk away. There is no rule in the social etiquette books that says you have to waste precious time or energy on people who cannot engage in mutually balanced, interesting, or pleasant discourse.

Hope these were helpful!

Have questions about conversations that you’d like me to answer? Maybe you have a team that needs some help with Savvy Socialization? Email me at pattidenucci[at]gmail[dot]com or write your comment below. I’m happy to help!

Wishing you a happy week and Holiday Season.