Several weekends ago I had the pleasure of having two remotely related relatives talking for four hours. I didn't know what to say to these nice people. For a while, we just stared at each other. Suddenly, I realized we could start a conversation. Therefore, don't worry if you have lulls in your conversation. Both of you are probably thinking. One of the relatives asked me some questions about my work. That started the ball rolling. In this case, I then returned a question. What are your hobbies and interests? People love to talk about their work and their life outside of work. The relative opened up in a way I have never seen. He told me about his time at college, the people he visited while working on advanced degrees, and the joy he experienced in writing poetry. I pleaded ignorant to knowing anything about poetry, although my high school English teacher inspired me to learn a few lines from American poems. The relative taught me about modern poetry and some of the outstanding people in that field. Even though poetry was not my particular interest, I asked many questions and appeared more than interested.
What has this story taught us so far? Certain principles about good conversation can evolve:
Now, let's take you to another part of the world. We are in Montreal and entering a beautifully appointed convention center in the heart of the city. We leave our coat at the check-in room and descend a staircase to be greeted by a room of 600 strangers. What do you do as an artful conversationalist? First, you don't panic and seek the next airplane home. You calmly descend the staircase and start studying the groups of people. Naturally, you head for the food and the hors d'oeuvres being carried by various food servers. Your face now lights on some possibly familiar faces. What to do? You wander over to this group of strangers while you are listening to strolling musicians and small chamber groups entertaining the guests. You realize immediately you are not part of the group. The group does not necessarily seem happy to see you; you hold your distance and don't intrude too much. You listen carefully to each of the members of the clique. Remember that you are there to learn. Learning is the first stage in appreciating the importance of conversation.
Now you are ensconced in the group and listening intently to the conversation. Someone gives you a nod, and you introduce yourself. You are in a group of people from the United States. Already, you have something in common with the group. Suddenly, you see a chance to introduce yourself. Remember to provide a firm handshake or as the experts say, "web to web." You find out two of the people in the group are from Southern California. It is such a small world. You inquire about where they work and what they do for a living. The conversation picks up.
O--ObserveWith this O-A-R analysis, let's apply the principles immediately. You first OBSERVE which groups of cliques seem to be most active. Can you fit with any of them? Then, you ASK by listening and eventually asking questions of group members. You can soon detect whether you are wanted. Most people like to talk about themselves, and that is your cue to listen and carry on conversation. Then, you can REVEAL your personal characteristics and interests. People find you are a conversationalist and can meet people. You become more accepted as you work the room. Nothing is more frustrating than standing at a party and not knowing anyone. You must put yourself out to meet people and practice that famous "networking."
This situation demands our best thinking. Here are some guidelines that may help you the next time you know no one at a round table:
These previous suggestions may not save your social and business evening, but they may help. As a former shy person, I have to work hard at getting to know people. The rewards are worthwhile. At that described dinner I met two weight trainers and three coaches. Treat every conversation as a learning experience. You are there to learn, not necessarily to eat, especially if it is a job interview.
In Montreal I experienced one cocktail party where I didn't know a single soul or anyone to talk to. That was the ultimate frustration. Suddenly, a voice inside me suggested I should single out someone in the room who looked bored or wasn't talking to anyone. That person would become a lightning rod. I had to remember to introduce myself and say something about my occupation. We needed to start a conversation. I did not need to spend any more time at the bar or the goodies tables. The person turned out to be someone who was worth networking with. He explained to me what line of work he was in. We visited at some lengths, and I was exhausted from the listening experience. The idea of singling out a lone face worked.
So often I hear people say they cannot remember names after they are introduced to numerous people. Try any memory trick you can to help that situation. When you are first introduced to someone new, ask if you said the name correctly. Ask for a spelling if you are still unsure of the name. Be carefully about asking for the spelling of the name, Smith. That can be so embarrassing. Think of that name the whole time you are conversing with the person. Even consider using that name once or twice while you are conversing. If appropriate, ask for the person's business card at the conclusion of the conversation.
By conversing, you can learn a lot about a person.
How about another quote from George Costanza? He appears to know everyone and everything on Seinfeld. Here's George's comment about being at a party:
I always know when someone is uncomfortable at a party.
It may be time to listen to advice of Letitia Baldrige in her new book, In the Kennedy Style: Magic Evenings in the Kennedy White House. She offers some excellent advice about the importance of entertaining, closely allied to conversation as part of the entertaining:
We have been doing this (my note: referring to entertaining) less and less as we near the end of the millennium, which is sad because to entertain is to give of oneself. It's a kindness."
source: In the Kennedy Style, p. 139
The next time we hate to entertain our friends and colleagues, think of the wonderful advice of Letitia Baldrige, and start entertaining!
Last updated Wednesday, April 4, 2003
copyright(c)G. Jay Christensen, All Rights Reserved
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