Friday, March 30, 2012

How to turn strangers into business associates or friends (in real life)

Picture yourself walking into the room of a large networking event. The high tables are crowded with people in suits or khakis, chatting amicably. They are engrossed in each other’s conversations. You walk in alone.
Photo by Liz Cezat, taken at a CREW Detroit meeting.
How do you feel? Are you confident? Do you feel intimidated? Are you afraid? Are you excited? What are your typical emotions and mindset when you enter a room or a setting where there are many new people?
Aside from your emotions and state of mind … what do you actually do on these occasions? Do you stand back by the wall and just watch for a while … deciding who you might approach? Do you take the nearest seat and hope you become invisible? Do you pray that someone will notice you and invite you into the conversation? Or, do you zero in on one person or a small group and forge ahead with your hand extended and say, “Hi. I’m Larry. Pleased to meet you. Nice jacket you got on.”
About 75% of us are uncomfortable when approaching a new setting where we don’t know anyone. Even if you do know some of the people at the event, it can be hard to get in sync with them, especially if you haven’t seen them in a while.
I’ve learned that groups of three are easiest to join. Groups of two can be intimidating, especially if they know each other well. That said, it doesn't always hold true. I recently made the acquaintance of two gentlemen at an association meeting by asking if I could join their table of two. Just prior to that,  I had been rebuffed from joining another table of three or four women, who were saving seats for their co-workers, who, by the way, never showed up.
Here are some tips on how to break the ice with people that you don’t know that well  and engage them in a conversation.
The first thing to do is to introduce yourself and extend your hand if that’s appropriate. Ask their name and try to remember it.
There are typically four levels of engagement. The first is to make small talk about the weather, traffic, a current event that’s not controversial, or sports. You might say, “The traffic on highway 101 was really tied up on my way to the meeting.”
The second level is to reveal a fact. “I don’t come here often, because I’m usually golfing on Monday nights.”
The third level offers a view or opinion. If the person you met also likes golf, focus on that common interest. “I think the best golf course on this side of town is Blue Bonnet Meadows.”
The fourth level is personal insight. You wouldn’t normally go to this level in a casual conversation. Let’s say you both love golf, you both belong to a league and are enjoying each other’s company. You may then share a personal problem if you’re comfortable doing so. For example, “My eyesight isn’t very good at night, so I don’t like to golf at dusk.”
Conversely, if you just met the person, you wouldn’t start off the conversation by telling him or her that you like to play golf but can’t see the ball at dusk.
You need to have a sense of the person’s interest level before you reveal too much information. It’s like a cascading fountain. One comment leads to another deeper comment. If the response is good, you can stick to that subject or probe deeper. If you’ve probed too deeply, bring it back to a safe level. It’s a dance. But, it’s always more fun when your toes don’t get stepped on.
Ask open-ended questions – where a yes or no won’t do. Example: Rather than saying, “How long have you lived here?” You could ask, “What kind of things do you really like about Detroit?”
Don’t ask too many questions or it will feel like an inquisition. Make sure that you are also sharing some of your experiences and opinions. Yet, don’t be the one doing all the talking. 
One of my worst-case scenarios is attending a chamber of commerce event and running into an insurance salesman or woman where all they want to do is talk about their product. Wouldn’t it be much more productive for them to find out something about you – like ‘Do you prefer city or highway driving?” If you answer, "City driving," they might say, “Most people feel safer driving in the city. Yet, most accidents happen on city streets only 10 miles from a person’s house. I know this because I sell auto insurance for Allstate.” Isn’t this a more interesting segue into their career?
One way to broach a stranger is to ask someone you know for an introduction. If the person who introduces you is socially adept, he or she will stick by your side while you strike up a conversation and graciously bow out so you can talk longer to the person you are meeting.
I was at a party over the weekend where I didn’t know very many people. As people were filling up their plates at a buffet, I was directed to sit at a table for four. No one was sitting there yet. As the first one there, I felt uncomfortable waiting for someone else to sit down.
A friend who I knew casually sat down – she wasn’t prepared to eat yet but said, “I’ll sit with you until someone else comes." And, she started to invite people to sit at my table. That did two things: it put me at ease, knowing that I wouldn’t be eating alone. And, it made other people feel special because they were invited to sit down and didn't have to wander around looking for a table. 
Try to pave the way for others to feel comfortable in social situations and it will help remove some of the nervousness that you feel.
There are plenty of opportunities to practice being social. Start with a hello and a smile. You can talk to the cashier at the grocery store, chat with the person sitting next to you in the waiting room or talk to another dog owner while you’re out walking Fido. I especially like the conversations that I have with people on planes.
These opportunities can open new doors for you. It might just make your day … or your week. And you never know where it might take your business.