Carrying on a conversation has never come easy for me. Frankly, it’s exhausting. I’m a closet introvert, disguised as an extrovert. While I may seem outgoing to the casual observer, I’m not. Often, I feel awkward, though it may not show. I envy how my kids boldly fling themselves into the world with ease and joyous abandon. For me, it’s strenuous. Exhausting. It doesn’t matter if I’m with strangers or with life-long friends, talking can be tough. More often than not, I feel self-conscious, uncertain of what to say. It’s not that I’m not interested or engaged in the topic. I just know that, when I’m tired or not “on”, I’ll stumble over my words, even with those friends I enjoy the most. Small talk – or big talk, for that matter – is not an innate skill of mine, which is particularly odd considering that I make my living having conversations and building relationships.
I’m not an engineer, writer or programmer – all careers that could likely afford me the solitude I love. No. I’m in business development, marketing, and sales. This business is built on the word “hello.” Meetings. Presentations. Conferences. Networking. My success depends on the ability to create meaningful experiences and authentic connections with people who I meet. When I first started in this business, I’d put on my “show face” to connect with people – something honed after years of ‘meet and greets’ with audience members in my theatre days. Good, but not authentic. Still, somewhere along the journey, I found a better way. I’ve discovered that there are three secrets to carrying on a great conversation. So if you’re an introvert like me, this is for you.
First, ask a good question. I’m not talking about “so, what do you do” or some other inane fall back line. I said ask a GOOD question, perhaps a GREAT one. You’re not looking for easy, one word answers here, but something a little deeper. Generally, I’ll join a group that’s already together and listen to the flow for a few minutes until something piques my interest. That’s what I’ll ask about.
Second, be quiet and listen. Don’t say anything. Just take in what the other person is saying. Most people enjoy talking. Go ahead and let them. Actively listen and honor whatever they may share with you. Nothing bothers me more than hearing people talk on top of each other, interrupt, or answer a question before the other person finishes what they are saying. This world is full of words, and not enough people take the time to hear them. If you’re too busy answering a question before it’s been fully asked, you’re likely missing something pretty key.
Finally, look for kindred spirits. If you really ask a good question and listen completely to the answer, more often than not, you’ll find you have something in common with the other person. In one way or another, you’re kindred spirits… wanting, wishing for or needing the same thing. I don’t believe in us or them. I believe in we. When you focus on looking for common ground, you’ll find it. Perhaps it’s something as small as the same favorite color. Perhaps it’s something much bigger than that: the feeling of being a parent, of rising to the occasion or rising to the top. When I step into a conversation, I never know what I will find in the other person. I just know that I will find something, and it will be good. There is comfort in knowing that strangers are only friends you have not met. It is empowering in business as well. In any situation, I know there will be an answer that works for both parties. I don’t give up until I find it.
Now, certainly there are those people with whom we share more – those in whom we see something of ourselves. Something timeless. Still, after all these years spent walking into rooms filled with the unknown, I’m still amazed at how similar we all are after a little while, how universal business is, and how common – and brilliant – this human condition can be. Everywhere I look, I see kindred spirits. A community. I may be one of the quieter members of it, but I’m all in. I hope you are too.