Talking to People 101 - Requested by Hara Chung

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Many in the IT industry have been here before; you go to a Meetup and stand there looking awkward because you don’t know anyone. It’s one of the joys of being an introvert. I used to suffer from this, who am I kidding, I still do suffer from it. But somewhere along the line I got to talk to some people, I found ways to break the ice. I’m not sure if I’m qualified to write about this, but as Hara Chung has requested it on my “Give me a challenge” post I’ll at least try.

Causes of Reluctance

Let’s start by working out why we struggle to talk to someone. In my case I just don’t know how to get a conversation started, for others it could be a fear of rejection, maybe it’s a feeling of inferiority, or maybe it’s something else. A lot of these causes can be resolved (at least in theory) quite easily. To implement the solution is far more challenging, but thankfully that task is something you have to do, so I can ignore it for now.

If you’re unsure how to start a conversation there’s a couple of simple rules. The first is to learn when it’s ok to interrupt an existing conversation. For this you need to understand the basic speech patterns of most people (don’t worry if you don’t know this yet, you can just continue being a wall-flower for a bit and watch others). The times I find it’s ok to interrupt a conversation is when you have something to add to it (but don’t talk over the top of someone else), if there’s a pause that’s going on a little bit too long, or if you want to encourage the conversation to continue. If you’re adding to a conversation, then just start talking when someone pauses, if you inadvertently start talking over someone else then pause, usually they’ll finish their comment and ask you to continue. If there’s a long pause, then fire off a question, introduce yourself (more on this later) or add a comment. If you want the conversation to continue, then just interject at a brief pause and comment that you find the topic interesting or you’d like to know more about sub-topic X.

If you’re concerned about rejection, this is something you need to accept can happen, but also acknowledge that as adults the rejection is often subtle and non-confrontational. Remember that you don’t know this person, so if you start talking and one or both of you loses interest, at some stage an excuse will be made and one of you will go somewhere else. By tomorrow night you’ll have forgotten this person. Also remember that many people are just as nervous as you are and that if they’re standing around awkwardly, they’ll be thankful you approached them.

Another common cause is a feeling of inferiority. I’ve already written an article about impostor syndrome, but that isn’t the only cause; maybe this person really is more knowledgeable on a topic than you are, but that’s ok, you’ll know more about something else. To provide a concrete example of this, I’ve been a developer for 25 years, through a number of different avenues I’ve started dealing with a lot of entry-level and junior developers. The other day one of the entry-level developers said that she was nervous about talking to me because of my experience. At the time she didn’t know that I learnt as much from her (maybe even more) as she did from me. When I learnt to program the Internet was in its infancy. I had to buy books (Amazon didn’t exist, I had to walk into a bookshop, find a book and purchase it), I have no idea what it’s like to be a junior developer with access to so much information. During our conversation I asked a lot about the struggles and opportunities she’d faced. By the time the conversation finished I had a much clearer picture than I did before. I learnt a lot from someone who’s never had a job in IT.

Whatever the cause of your reluctance to start a conversation find a way to overcome it. You don’t have to suddenly start talking to everyone.

Be Prepared

Especially in a work-related environment (for example at a meetup group), you’ll get the question “so tell me about yourself?” According to Johnathan Maltby in a course I did with him the other day, you should have an elevator pitch ready to roll. I’m not going to tell you how to write one, that’s his speciality (but mention this article and ask if he’ll give you a discount for his next 1 day workshop - he probably won’t, but you may as well ask), but the basic premise is that it should be 25 to 30 seconds login (that’s about 80 to 90 words), not mention your job title, and be so well rehearsed that it comes off as natural. The strategy that was suggested was to add some “umms” and “errs” and pauses to make it seem natural, then repeat it out loud in the shower multiple times every day (including the umms, errs and pauses) until it comes naturally. I’m yet to practice my pitch properly, and every week or two I get annoyed with myself for missing a chance to use it when I get asked to tell someone about myself.

In a non-work related situation, you’ll likely get the same question, so have a second elevator pitch ready for that situation too.

Now What?

Now you’ve told them a bit about yourself, the real challenge begins. How do you continue the conversation? The answer to this is quite easy, you’ve done your elevator pitch, now you can ask them the same question in return, to paraphrase the guys from Pillar Leaders (check out their Melbourne Leadership meetup), fulfil the social contract. At this point it’s good to know that most people love to talk about themselves, especially if they think the other person is interested. During their elevator pitch find the items that interest you, start asking them about it, let them give in-depth answers, keep asking for more information about the topic. I realised the other day that a person I met at a meetup (who I’m starting to think of as more or a friend than just a random meetup person) is really good at this. When I ask him questions, he turns it back to me; sure, you won’t be able to do this straight away, but you’ll find conversations easier when the other person does most of the talking.

Help! I Need to get Away from this Person

Sometimes you talk to someone and it just isn’t working, but they think it is. How do you get away from them? Well, depending on the situation you can make your excuses and leave the venue, or you can spot someone across the room who you heard earlier, and make an excuse about needing to ask them something. There’s no need to let the person know they’re boring you. If you’re really stuck for how to get away, locate the venue host, make your excuse that you need to talk to the organiser and then ask the host if they need help cleaning up.

How can I Stay in Contact?

Not too long ago part of the introduction ritual was to exchange business cards. Those days are long gone. If you want to stay in contact with someone at a work-related event, simply ask to connect on LinkedIn as the conversation is drawing to a close. At a social event, maybe it’s ask for their Facebook, or ask if it’s ok to message them through whatever the event was organised through. In a university or education environment, make sure you see them after the next shared class.

What Else Should I Know?

This article has focussed on meeting someone in an offline environment. But there are other ways to meet people that can be a bit easier. My favourite one is to post random thoughts and ideas on LinkedIn, connect to people whose interactions I like, and then send them a message based on the interaction. I already know we have stuff in common, talking about it online is less confronting for me, and after a few chats it’s often possible to suggest catching up for a coffee to talk further.

Summary

The short version of this is:

  • Find a way to join an existing conversation with a question or find someone who looks as nervous and awkward as you feel.
  • Have an elevator pitch ready to roll and use it when asked.
  • Focus on asking the other person about themselves.
  • You can always make an excuse to leave.
  • Ask for their LinkedIn or some form of contact method.
  • Start conversations online and then take them to in person.

I hope this has provided enough information to get you started on your social journey. Thank you, Hara, for suggesting I write about this topic, and when you’re in Australia perhaps we can do a follow-up article with strategies that work for you.