Networking 101 – How To Talk To Strangers

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

The type of people who have the analytical skills to do consulting tend to be introverted and unaccustomed to being around other people constantly in their work lives.

So here is 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. The art of having a conversation, especially a conversation where you don’t have to work hard, is to ask OPEN questions — questions that require a verbal “essay” to answer.

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.

Too often we’re being polite: we act as though we’re listening, when we’re really just waiting for them to stop talking so we can say whatever we were planning to say (regardless of what the other person just said!).

When you ask an open question, they are going to give you a long and detailed answer. All you have to do then is ACTUALLY LISTEN to what the other person is saying. Then when you hear something interesting, make a comment about your own experience or ask a more detailed question about that topic.

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? Is my hair okay? Did I spill something on my shirt? Should I check my mobile phone to look like I’m busy? It’s better than just standing here with nothing to do.”

“Oh shoot, my drink is almost all gone. Maybe I should get another. But I don’t actually want one. But what do I do with my hands? 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?”

This is what the inner voice conversation sounds like. I know this because this is what I used to say to myself at cocktail parties, information sessions, and networking events — and from time to time still, do.

When I was younger, when I was having conversations with other people, I would simultaneously have a conversation with my inner voice. The problem with this approach is I wasn’t able to listen deeply to the other 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.

The solution is to turn off (or at least turn down) the volume on your inner voice, especially when you’re in the middle of a conversation with another person. Just pay attention to them.

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 that 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!

Then listen deeply, keep your inner voice quiet, and they will respond to you.

 

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.

 

LONG-TERM

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

a) being intimidated by the other person and putting them on a pedestal;

b) being secretly afraid the other person will see you and somehow find you lacking; or

c) 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 or, on the flip side, presuming most people are better than you.

Another way low self-esteem expresses itself is by acting superior to other people. You might notice this as arrogance. When you’re right and have high self-esteem, there is no need to convince others you’re right. It’s enough simply to know you are right and they are wrong.

But if you’re right and have low self-esteem, the insecurity runs so deep that being right isn’t enough. There’s a need to prove others wrong, to make them see that you’re right and they’re wrong. It is this public perception of superiority that helps this kind of person feel better.

People who overcompensate by conveying superiority are people who place themselves in a “One Up” position.

And when someone tends to automatically assume they are in some way “less than” other people, that’s a person who places himself in a “One Down” position.

Both of these extremes are enormous obstacles to being comfortable with yourself. The premise of both points of view is that “something is wrong with me.”

The One Down person tries to “hide,” hoping nobody will notice and see these self-perceived flaws. The One Up person tries to act bigger than they are and hide behind a mask of superiority.

In the general population, I’d say 75% of people are either One Up or One Down.

Once you understand the psychology of the people around you, you begin to handle things differently.

Best wishes!

Sahil Jain

I am a PGP student at IIM Nagpur. I am also an executive member of Cultural Club at IIM Nagpur. I did his summer internship at Jindal Steel & Power Limited, Gurgaon.

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