I noticed Barry about half way through the Barbecue; while everyone else was waving glasses in the air, punctuating their conversation with highly visible visuals, he was standing alone, alongside a large pot plant, looking like he was going to disappear behind it any minute.

‘Ahhh’ I thought ‘here’s someone who needs help’ and I started to edge my way towards him.  I probably wasn’t as subtle as I thought, as the closer I came, the further away he moved.  Finally I cornered him near the Lemon tree, and was moved by the look of sheer terror in his eyes.

I was not deterred however and gently engaged him in conversation, trying not to frighten him with direct and detailed questions.  Eventually he began to relax and after accepting another beer, he confessed his problem.

It wasn’t all that unusual – it was that he hated to be in a group of people he did not know.  He was never sure how to conduct himself and it was absolutely impossible for him to start up a conversation with others who he had only just met.

Here at Trischel  our main aim is to improve business communication, as the lack of personal communication skills in a business environment can lead to 17 hours down time every week. Even our one-on-one coaching plan is focused on improving work related presentation and communication skills; but the plight of Barry – and of others who suffer the same debilitating condition – has moved me to consider the way that our personal communication can so often fail us in our … well, our ‘personal’ communication!

While conversation is not necessarily communication; it is a very necessary skill to build up relationships and to make the usual social interactions effective and pleasant.  And how many of you will admit (to yourselves of course) that making polite conversation to strangers can be quite daunting?

But there is a simple technique that can help in overcoming the natural hesitation in making the first move.  Because if you don’t (make the first move that is) you can be stuck in a group of silent, brooding people all waiting for someone else to do so!!

So the simple rules of engagement of social conversation with those you do not know are as easy as One, Two. Three … Four:

1.         Practise introducing yourself – have your opening gambit ready and rehearsed before entering the gathering.  “Hi, my name is Michele, what is yours?”  Stopping by a stranger and offering a warm handshake and this simple recipe served with a smile, is guaranteed to get a response.  Good manners decree that the other person must accept your handshake; state their name and do so with a smile.  Step one completed. 

2.         Comment on the weather – a good British technique, but it is non-confrontational, and is usually effective to indicate that you are willing to take the conversation further.  ‘Isn’t it cold for this time of year?’ is the standard; but once you get a little more confident you can try  What a lovely garden, I wonder how they keep it so beautiful in this heat’.  Probably a little expansive for a beginner, but it shows what can be done if we try.

3.         Refer to the people and/or occasion – here you can drag in the host, or the occasion to invite further comments from your conversation partner. ‘How long have you known Peter and Janet?’ or even ‘I’ve never been to a book launch before, do you know the author personally?’  These should be good to start a discussion on the hosts or authors or books.

4.         Confess your likes and dislikes – yes; really!!  Done tactfully it can prompt another nervous beginner to open up a little. On the Positive side you can refer to some film or book you really liked ‘I’ve just seen the final Harry Potter film, it was fabulous – are you a fan?’ – even if they’re not, after that they probably won’t confess it! Or on the negative side why not step outside the comfort zone with ‘I’m not a fan of cricket, I much prefer rugby league – what’s your favourite sport?”

By now you are probably aware that each one of these techniques ends in a question – but none of them are really confrontational and should be a comfortable prompt for your conversation partner to start feeling confident enough to continue in the same vein.

However, if you find that you are not getting any positive responses or that they seem to want to disagree with everything you have mentioned; there is one final technique you need to know – it’s the ‘disengagement’.

Take a deep breath, hold out the hand and with a smile say something like ‘It’s been lovely talking to you, but I must just say Hi to Janet’ (substitute the name of someone at the other end of the room)’  Again good manners decree that they should murmur something similar while returning a limp handshake before taking off to the nearest pot plant.

You are now free to wander off in the direction of ‘Janet’ until you find another likely candidate for conversation whereupon you can hold out your hand, and say with a smile ‘Hello; my name’s Michele – what’s yours?’
The recently introduced Michele @ Trischel

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