After 28 years and thousands of clients, I have learned that opening a conversation is typically the most difficult step for people. This usually means meeting someone new in person, but it also applies to picking up the phone to make that initial call or sending that critical first email. Labels have been given to the uncomfortable feeling that builds inside when you are faced with a first contact... approach anxiety, shyness, worry that you will not be liked, fear of being judged, call reluctance, fear of rejection, or that the entire interaction will just simply go wrong.
If you are one of the few who have never had a problem walking up to anyone anywhere and striking up a conversation, then you may be tempted to stop reading this right now; but if you do stop reading, you may miss out on a tip or two that will make a noticeable difference in your life.
When you stop to think about it, these challenges that you face when it comes to meeting someone new were programmed into you when you were a child; and you have carried this programming with you as you got older. When you were younger, how many times did you hear... "Now remember, don't talk to strangers."? Maybe you were even told to stay away from strangers. Now, that same program unconsciously fires off when you simply think about opening a conversation with someone whom you have never met. It is time to start programming your mind with the thoughts and behaviors that you want in your life... not what others have installed for you.
In business, I have heard many trainers and managers teach the "3-Foot Rule" to help people overcome their reluctance or even inability to open a conversation with a stranger. What they recommend is that you make a commitment to open a conversation with anyone who gets within three feet of you. (That is about arms length... give or take a few inches.) They prescribe doing this for a week or two until you become comfortable with opening up conversations with strangers. What usually happens to people who commit to this exercise is that they begin to avoid getting close to people after a few days. What started out as a way to overcome your fear using exposure therapy ends up installing a fear of getting physically close to people.
I have been guilty of teaching the 3-Foot Rule. The method worked for me... at least, that is what I thought. I remember committing to this exercise for an entire month when a sales trainer recommended it to me. I introduced myself to everyone around me, I made a comment (within context) about the environment we were in, and we had a pleasant interaction. It worked! By the end of that month, I had nothing but positive feelings when I thought about opening up a conversation with a stranger; but when I started teaching the 3-Foot Rule to my clients, I found that they were not getting the same results that I got. In fact, I was reinforcing their fear of talking to strangers!
I had to take a step back and examine why the 3-Foot Rule worked for me so well, but it was not working for most of my clients. When I did, I realized something very interesting; and that is the day I stopped teaching the 3-Foot Rule.
When you meet someone new (a stranger), it is not about you... it is about them.
If you are focused on overcoming your challenge of meeting people, then you begin to think about how you could say something wrong or how they will not like you or how they will think you are a creep or how they have a higher social status than you and on and on. Your focus is on not screwing up and being rejected. As Dr. Phil would say, "It ain't about you!"
To become an effective communicator... specifically, to successfully walk up to anyone anywhere and open a conversation, your focus must be on the other person. Instead of focusing on yourself and everything that could go wrong with the interaction, focus on only one outcome.
Focus on putting a smile on the other person's face.
That is it! It is not about you, it is not about the way you look, it is not about being rejected, it is not about the way you walk, nor is it about how you bumped into a chair while walking over to meet them. It is about putting a smile on that person's face. It is about giving them a feeling that they will associate with you. It is about making someone happy for no reason at all. That is your purpose. Say to yourself, "I am going to do everything I can to make that person smile."; and then do it.
A very good example of what I am telling you can be found in one of my favorite movies. Do yourself a favor, and watch this clip. I am positive it will put a smile on your face. https://youtu.be/Xd8qocJNO7Y
Taking that first step or dialing the phone or typing that initial line in the email can seem like a big challenge to overcome; but after you commit, the rest becomes easier. Let me give you an exercise to make this happen.
- Stand (or sit) up straight, and take a deep breath.
- Imagine that their is a version of you standing (or sitting) in front of you who has all the confidence and courage and qualities needed to open a conversation with someone and make them smile. Notice everything about that you in front of you. How are they standing (or sitting)? How are they moving? How are they breathing? Et cetera.
- Now, step into that other you. Literally, physically step forward (or sit down) into that you that you created. As you do, take on the same posture and other physical characteristics of that you. Breathe in the positive energy and confidence.
- Go! Walk over or dial that phone number or begin that email. Just do it!
Something else that will help...
When you walk up to someone or make that call or compose that email, imagine that the person you are about to meet is the most interesting person in the world; and open and continue the conversation as if this were the absolute truth. Ask them questions about themselves, give your attention to that person, and get them to smile. That is your focus.
On the phone and via email, I will admit that it is easier to open a conversation. On the phone, you typically have a reason for calling; and I would hope that you are not simply calling people cold from a directory... unless you are being paid to strictly do just that. When calling someone, simply open with something like, "Hi, John. I was with Kevin Johnson a couple of days ago, and he asked me to give you a call." By letting John know that you were asked to contact him by a friend or respected business partner, you begin to get grouped into that category. Keep in mind that in addition to setting an appointment or getting a date or whatever it might be, your goal is still to make them smile. For example, perhaps mention that Kevin told you about the time that he and John were golfing and a deer took off with John's ball. You can use a similar strategy when composing an email.
In person, there are countless ways to open a conversation with someone. One of the easiest methods is to ask for someone's opinion. For example, if you are standing in line at the grocery, you may say to the person behind you, "I have been debating about trying that juice (pointing to an item in their cart). What do you think about it?" You can open a conversation in this way while waiting at Starbucks or in an office supply store or even while getting your hair cut. People are usually more than willing to give you their opinion.
At networking events for either professional or personal purposes, I always see people standing on the sidelines not doing what they came their to do... network. It looks like an 8th-grade dance. One of the main reasons for this is that they do not know how to open a conversation in that environment. It is actually very easy if you simply tell the truth. Walk up to someone and open with, "Hi, I'm Dave; and I thought I would see if there is anything we can help each other with. What do you do?" Continue the conversation by asking questions while holding the thought that this person is the most interesting person in the world.
There is an old adage that governs every interaction you have... "All things being equal, people want to do business with their friends; and all things not being equal, people still want to do business with their friends."
Stop being so uptight, loosen up, and make friends. Make them smile.
Bill Gladwell is an entertainer, speaker, and trainer as well as a self-contained, one-man spectacle and Social Dynamics expert.