18 May This magic word will make you a great conversationalist
He makes eye-contact. Darn it! You know his face, but — like so many others — you have forgotten his name. Oh no! He’s coming over. You put on an exaggerated smile, which probably has more of a deer-in-headlights look, and dive straight in: “Heeeeey! How aaaaare you!?”
Still blank. No name. Was it James? Michael? Hmmm. In fact, you don’t even know where you’re supposed to know him from.
“Sarah! You look amazing! Wow. What a surprise to see you here. How long has it been?!”
This is just great. He remembers you.
“Phew! Toooo long, hey!? Wow. I can’t even remember…t-tell me, what have you been…up to?!”
This is when time slows down to a grinding halt, ageing you 5 months per second. You wish you were better with names. And people. And small talk. And having a ‘normal’ conversation. But, your only strategy at the moment, is to ‘fake it till you make it’, and hope no one notices.
Everybody’s awkward sometimes
When was the last time you were in this type of situation? You may have said something inappropriate, made a lame joke or fell over your own words. Or, perhaps you just called someone by the wrong name. For 5 months straight.
All of us have been there. Many of us avoid social entirely events because of this— preferring the company of Game of Thrones. But the only way to avoid social interactions altogether, is to live in a cave. On Mars. Alone.
Until Mars becomes a viable option, here are a few survival tips to claw your way through the next social gathering, with less battle scars.
Your magic word? L.O.V.E When you need to navigate the treacherous social terrain, L.O.V.E is not a feeling, it’s an acronym:
L // Listen
Try this: When someone else starts telling you a story, don’t interrupt them at all — not even to add something to their story. When they pause, go one of two routes:
1) Repeat what they said, in a question format, basically clarifying what you heard.
Examples: “So you played a good game of golf over the weekend?”; “It sounds like it was a great game of golf!”; “You say you stayed with your girlfriend this weekend?”; “You had Thai curry for dinner?”
2) Reflect their emotions back to them in a question format.
Examples: “Wow, you sound excited about this weekend?”; “He really upset you, didn’t he?”; “You sound irritated about your manager.”; “It sounds like she makes you very happy.”
It may seem silly to repeat what someone says, but TRUST us: it literally works like magic!
Why? Firstly: it forces you to pay close attention to what someone is saying, and to how they feel. It helps you forget about your own awkwardness, by paying close attention to the other. Secondly: it shows the other person that you are listening, and validates their experience. Everybody wants to feel heard, and this simple activity will prompt them to open up and share more with you.
O // Observe
If the conversation shifts back to you, and you have something to say, keep your eyes on the other person: watch their body-language.
Good signs are usually a relaxed posture, open body-language, and good eye contact. Someone who feels comfortable with you, will usually also start mirroring your body language subconsciously — take note if they duplicate any of your moves : this means you’re in good stead!
Bad signs are usually shifting eyes, crossed arms, closed posture, or feet pointing away from you. General fidgeting could mean they are getting bored.
Although body language can have a broad range of meanings, you can usually pick up when someone is truly interested in what you’re saying. If there are too many ‘bad signs’? Simple! Turn the conversation back on them, by asking their opinion, or input, or taking it back to a topic that you know they are passionate about. And, if you don’t know what that is? Just ask!
“So, tell me about something that excites you!”
V // Vocalise
How you speak can completely change the way people understand you. We tend to speak more loudly and high-pitched when we get excited or anxious about something. If we feel close, intimate or withdrawn, the pitch of our voice lowers, and the volume drops. People respond to these tones in our voice: if you’re not aware how loud or soft, or how high or low the pitch of your voice is, your message may come across the wrong way. Recording yourself in normal conversation is a great way to find out how you sound to others.
The general tone of your voice can also influence if people take you seriously. Under the guidance of a tutor from the National Theatre, the late Margaret Thatcher did vocal training to lower the pitch of her voice. This ensured that she could present herself more seriously, in a world still largely dominated by male leadership:
Recognising how someone else might feel about a situation, takes a bit of practice. We often assume other people think and feel the way we do. By listening & observing, you can develop a keen sense for what the person is really like. Ask them directly how something makes them feel, or make a suggestion, like
“Wow, it sounds like you are really busy! Doesn’t it make you tired?” or
“If someone did that to me, I would get so angry. Did it make you angry?”
If you volunteer an emotion, the other person has an opportunity to agree, to correct you and share their view. It makes them feel heard on a deeper level, and there is an opportunity to understand them better.
The most important part of any communication, is to decidedly turn your self-consciousness into curiosity. Beyond simply getting you through the next networking event — you may actually enjoy it!