Angie had been looking to create a foursome for a golf tournament that her company was holding. She had been having difficulty recruiting the final two participants needed to compete in the company tournament. She was a little perturbed with a close friend whom she had invited and had turned her down. After trying to convince her friend to come to the tournament, Angie asked her why she refused to play. Her friend responded with, “I think playing golf is just too “people-y.”
“What do you mean by that?” Angie queried.
“Now that my job lets me work from home, I’ve gotten used to being on my own. And the prospect of being with people that I don’t know is way out of my comfort zone.”
Has the imposed isolation of working at home made us less likely or more uncomfortable interacting face-to-face with others? So it seems for many of us.
Here are 10 tips for making connections and building rapport with those whom you may not know whether you are in person or communicating virtually.
1. Initiate the conversation.If you are in a group of people that you don’t know and you’re waiting for someone else to initiate the conversation, you will likely wait a long time. Many people are uncomfortable speaking with others that they don’t know. Approach the person, introduce yourself, ask their name, and then ask something about themselves. It is a good idea to have a couple of questions in mind that you can use as icebreakers. For example, you might consider any of the following questions:
“What do you do for a living?” “What got you into this type of career?”
“Are you from this area?” “What brought you here?”
“How long have you been in this career field?” “What is one of your recent successes?”
“What do you like to do for fun?”
“What’s the best book you’ve read lately?”
Most people love to talk about themselves and are more than willing to give advice, talk about what they are working on, or share their triumphs. This same tactic works equally well with people you are meeting for the first time online.
2. Take responsibility for the conversation. You can guide the conversation by asking questions. Before speaking with people, identify what it is that you would like to accomplish with the conversation. Are you interested in making new friends, learning something specific, being introduced to someone you know will be at the meeting, or establishing yourself as someone who can be viewed as a resource to others? Whatever the reason, clarifying your intent will help focus your purpose in holding the conversation.
3. Call them by name. As you begin the conversation, introduce yourself and ask the person’s name. As soon as you hear their name, use it in a question that you will ask them. This will help you to cement their name in your memory. You may say something like, “So, Beverly, what brings you to this gathering this evening?” Or, “Beverly, how do you know the host?” Repeating the person’s name communicates that you are focused on them, and the repetition will help you to remember them.
When I taught at a university, one of my goals the first day of class was to memorize my students’ names. I had each student share their name, where they were from, and something interesting about themselves. As they were speaking, I was repeating their name to myself in my mind. As the classes got bigger, I created a story that I would fit them into, so I could remember each person. This took some practice, but it really helped to establish connection with everyone.
4. Portray a positive demeanor.Be sure and smile while making brief eye contact with people. Keep your tone pleasant and take care not to bring up sensitive or potentially inflammatory topics. Make the other person the focus of the conversation, rather than talking a lot about yourself. People who share information about themselves generally feel that the conversation went well and that it was a positive interaction. When it’s time, be sure and exit the conversation with a positive statement, such as, “It was a pleasure to meet you. I look forward to seeing you again at our next meeting,” or “Thank you for your suggestion today; I look forward to adding it to my next presentation.”
5. Notice others’ eye contact.If you are at a gathering with several people whom you may not know, and you are wondering with whom you could strike up a conversation, notice who makes eye contact with you. When this happens, you might give them a nod or a smile. They will usually nod or smile in return; then approach them, introduce yourself, and ask them their name and begin the conversation. I have even gone so far that when approaching someone, I have stated, “I just noticed you a moment ago and thought to myself, ‘That looks like an interesting person.’ Hi! I’m John Stoker. What is your name?” Then I will follow with a series of questions as we discussed earlier.
It is important to note that some people are uncomfortable with direct and unbroken eye contact. This is more about their personal communication preference than anything else. If you are speaking with someone who looks at you, then looks away, and then returns to giving you eye contact, mirror their behavior back to them. Also be aware of how close you are standing or sitting near someone. If you take a step toward the person, and you see their body start to lean away from you, you are too close to them. Take a step back, and you will see their body and demeanor relax. As everyone has different personal space requirements, be aware of your proximity and adjust accordingly.
If you are speaking with someone online, be sure to look at your camera when they are speaking. Let them know if you anticipate that you will need to take notes to capture what they are saying so they don’t think you aren’t focusing on the conversation. Connecting visually when online is often more difficult than if you were in person. Be aware of what you are doing and how you are coming across by remembering that the person you are speaking with has your image front and center on their screen.
6. Adopt an attitude of curiosity.Each person is unique and diverse in what they have to offer. Let your curiosity drive your interactions with others. Having a goal to learn about others will help you think of things to talk about. For example, when I attend conferences where organizational development practitioners may be in attendance, I am always interested in their experience in leading change initiatives. So I will ask about the initiative, what they were trying to accomplish, what they did, what worked and what didn’t work, and what they would do differently if they could do it over again. Such conversations usually lead them to ask about my experience on the same topic. These interactions have often led to highly collaborative professional relationships that have paid huge dividends over time.
7. Listen and be fully present. Be present while others are speaking, rather than thinking about what you might say next, who you want to speak to next, or anything else that pulls your focus away from your current conversation.
When you interact with others, there are many different communication channels that people use simultaneously. We often focus only on the message in their words, but we may miss messages from other sources. For example, what message is a person sending with their body language—their eyes, hands, stance, or gestures? Their tone of voice, their personal energy, and the emotion infused into their language tells you more information than just the words they are saying.
As you ask yourself these questions and make observations, you will start to notice these different messages. If you don’t know what their actions mean, you can ask by acknowledging their behavior followed by a question. For example, if you noticed someone rolling their eyes when you were sharing an idea, you might ask, “I noticed that you seem unconvinced about my suggestion. Is there something about my idea that you believe won’t work?” Or perhaps someone expressed a thought with a raised voice and more negative tone. You might say, “You seem to be frustrated with what’s happening. Would you share more about your thoughts?”
Increasing your awareness of other ways people communicate and learning to ask for additional information will help you both communicate more accurately.
8. Ask questions. Even though I have mentioned this several times, asking questions should stand as a separate point. Ask open-ended questions—questions that require more than a “yes” or “no” response. You might also try the “springboard” questioning technique to dive deeper on a subject. Springboarding is taking something that someone says and using their statement as the basis for your next question. For example, let’s say that someone says, “Yikes! That meeting was so boring!” You would ask, “What was boring about the meeting?” They might say, “Well, for a start it was two hours long.” You might in turn ask, “Was it the length of the meeting or something else that was boring?” This skill is helpful in using your questions to dive deeper into a topic.
9. Paraphrase your understanding. If you are in doubt, paraphrase what the other person said by simply restating in your own words what you think you have heard. It is as simple as stating, “So, if I have understood correctly….” Paraphrasing allows you to check your understanding and sincerely demonstrate that you have heard and understood the other person accurately.
10. Express your gratitude. After speaking with a person, end your conversation by thanking them and expressing your appreciation for their contribution. It might sound like this, “Thank you for visiting with me today. I really appreciate you spending your time and sharing your experience with me. It was great to meet you.” This simple acknowledgment conveys your gratitude and ends the conversation on a positive note.
Meeting new people can be a challenge. Know that others are likely just as nervous to speak with people that they don’t know. People worry about how to start, what to say, and how to end. Following these simple tips will give you a framework for talking to others that will help you to establish rapport, have meaningful conversations, and forge connections with others. Meeting and speaking with people you didn’t previously know has the potential to grow your network, spark new friendships, and create opportunities for continued collaboration.
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