Advancing

How To Talk To Strangers And Enjoy It

network with strangers

While in Manhattan recently, I met with some first and second year McKinsey consultants for an impromptu Q&A session. During this informal “shop talk” session, a first year McKinsey consultant asked me how one can be more comfortable meeting strangers (e.g., new clients.)

Usually the question is asked in the context of networking at information sessions, or connecting with people in your network to secure an interview.

So here are some short, medium, and long-term solutions for how to improve your people skills–in particular the ability to meet new people for the first time, and maybe even enjoy it.

Short Term

1. GET THEM TALKING ABOUT THEMSELVES. When you meet someone for the first time, hands down the easiest thing you can do is ask them about themselves. This is a very popular topic! It is never an offensive topic. People always have something to say about themselves. One of the tricks is to ask an OPEN question. For CEO’s, I usually ask, “So how did you get started in XYZ field?” I’ve never gotten anything shorter than a 10-minute answer. I’ve even gotten 30-minute answers. This is a good 80/20 rule of thumb for an introvert: Ask one question and get 10-30 minutes of conversation out of it.

2. LISTEN DEEPLY. You would be surprised how few people ACTUALLY listen deeply to the other person. Most of the time when the other person is talking, we are putting all of our energy into deciding what we are going to say next (regardless of what the other person just said!) When you hear something interesting, make a comment about your own experience, or ask a more detailed question about that topic. You could say something like, “Wow. Really? What was that like?” If you show more interest in someone, they will often take a deeper interest in you. It’s a natural human instinct to reciprocate, so the more you hear them out, the more they want to hear you out. The “secret” is to hear them out first.

3. TURN OFF THE INNER VOICE. When you’re at a networking or social function, sometimes instead of engaging with other people you end up having a conversation with your “inner voice.” The conversation with your inner voice sounds something like this:

I hope nobody notices I’m not talking to anyone…This is not going well. Geez, I wish someone would come up and talk to me…When does this thing end? Should I check my mobile phone to look like I’m busy? … I need to do something. I can’t just stand here….Am I a loser? No, I am not a loser. Then why do I feel like a loser?…

I did this (and sometimes still do.) The problem with this is I wasn’t able to listen deeply to another person because I was distracted by also listening to myself. Invariably, the other person would lose interest in the conversation because they didn’t like competing with the conversation going on in my head.

4. ASSUME THE OTHER PERSON IS MORE NERVOUS THAN YOU. The majority of people I know feel at least a little awkward meeting new people (though some people are better at hiding it than others). Most people also tend to assume that everyone else is more socially comfortable than they are. So what happens is, you have all these people standing in a room, and instead of talking to each other, they talk to themselves inside their own heads. This ends up becoming a self-reinforcing cycle. The way to break this cycle is to assume everyone else is more nervous or feels more awkward than you. Then make it your job to help others feel comfortable by reaching out and engaging them. Even if they are not great conversationalists, that’s okay. Just ask them about themselves!

Medium Term

5. GET MORE LOW-STAKES PRACTICE. If your career path has involved working on your own more than working with other people, consider getting more opportunities to practice your interpersonal skills. The key is to use the skills in an environment where there’s no downside to doing it poorly.

Long Term

6. BECOME COMFORTABLE WITH YOURSELF. It’s my theory that most social awkwardness and anxiety comes from some combination of:

  1. being intimidated by the other person and putting them on a pedestal;
  2. being secretly afraid the other person will see you and somehow find you lacking; or
  3. being uncomfortable with being yourself.

The root cause of these three dynamics is low or diminished self-esteem. One trademark of low self-esteem is the presumption that one is somehow inferior to others. Another way low self-esteem expresses itself is by acting superior to other people. You might experience this as arrogance. Both of these extremes are enormous obstacles to being comfortable with yourself because the premise of both points of view is that “something is wrong with me.” If you want to develop exceptional people skills, you absolutely, positively have to understand how this dynamic works. You need to learn to recognize it in yourself, recognize it in others, and know how to work with yourself and others, given their tendencies. Once you understand the psychology of the people around you, you begin to handle things differently.

About the Author

Gayle Rigione is Ivy Exec’s Chief Community Development Officer. Gayle spent 15 years in diverse relationship management and senior management roles at MasterCard International, Arthur Andersen Strategic Services, and Bankers Trust Company. She earned her MBA from Columbia.