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Breaking into conversations politely

Victoria MacLennan, Guest Post. 21 March 2018, 10:35 am
Breaking into conversations politely

A fabulous group of young(er) women and men at a FLINT meetup (Future Leaders IN Technology, Hamilton) challenged me during an "Importance of Networking" interactive talk - to teach them how to break into conversations politely.

My initial reaction was good for them! very bold challenging this apparent expert and put her to the test. Then I faltered. As a person who breaks into conversations loudly with statements like "Kia ora, you look like you are having an interesting chat" or "Hi Helen, I have always wanted to meet you" what tips could I give networking newcomers?

Be armed with Conversation Starters

One of the exercises I take groups through is Conversation Starters, in a small group brainstorm then practice to see how well your conversation starter idea lands. The general guidelines I suggest are - don't get too personal, you never know how someone is feeling or what happened to them today; don't get too political (with one exception below) or religious; and most importantly not everyone likes to talk about the weather.

To start them off I throw out some initial ideas:

  • Trump, living on the other side of the world it's pretty safe to open a conversation with "did you see what Trump did today/yesterday/last week" everyone has an opinion.
  • Black Mirror / Game of Thrones are highly polarising relatively safe topics "how are you coping with this long wait until GoT season 8" or "did you watch Black Mirror 4". People either love or hate them or have no idea what you are talking about - it works on so many levels.
  • Or if you're not comfortable with either of those, one I find disarms people and gets them talking "what's your biggest hight light so far this year/month/week?" (warning sometimes that one can spiral if they have nothing good happening in their lives).

Armed with conversation starters was not enough for this audience! They really wanted to know how to step up and manoeuvre themselves into a group already formed and talking.

Start with a Smile

Just like reading the body language of the group you are planing to break into - are they an open group who might be receptive or closed group trying to have a private conversation? - they will assess your body language so start with a smile.

  • Smiles are amazing.
  • Smiles are contegious.
  • Smiles make you feel positive
  • even a forced smile can boost your self esteem.
  • Smiles make you seem likeable.
  • Smiling helps you stand up straight.
  • Be Brave and Try again

Sometimes breaking into a conversation doesn't happen the first time, one polite person smiles and nods but they don't let you join in. This is when you need to be brave and try again - I suggest with a different group.

If you find yourself hovering around a group you will hear what they are talking about which provides another great conversation starter "I heard you talking about the rubix cube earlier….." or "sorry to interupt but you might be interested to know over 350 million rubix cubes have been sold since 1977".

The other challenge posed by my FLINT audience was waiting to meet one person in particular - the speaker after an event, or the host, or your idol Helen. This one is tricker. The speaker or host or celebrity might have quite a queue waiting to meet them. My advice is to stand quietly near to them, wait for a pause in the conversation then armed with your smile say "Helen, I thought your talk was fascinating and wanted to ask you …." starting with a question will establish a basis for a conversation. If that doesn't work, figure out who their offsider is and initiate a conversation with her/him, ask them to introduce you.

A good speaker or host or celebrity will keep the line moving (if it's that scenario) so waiting your turn will work vs barging in remember this is your first impression.

Golden Rule - be aware of others trying to join your conversation too

Finally, remember there will be others like you at an event, people wanting to network and realise the benefits. Keep an eye on the person hovering or standing alone and help them put their networking skills to the test.

Good luck putting this all together! networking is hard but important. Be prepared, smile and be brave "Functions, Events, Parties - survival tips" and you should have a great experience. Vic.

Often found laughing, Victoria loves what she does "We live in a great country so helping every New Zealander reach their potential in life is something we can all aspire to achieve". You can find Victoria on LinkedIN or Twitter or on Medium. Cross-posted with kind permission.


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