Personal relationships are essential in today’s business world. The best entrepreneurs seem to have an innate ability to connect with strangers in any situation. They’re able to find common ground and build rapport with others almost instantly.
It may look effortless, but it’s a learned skill. With a little work and some dedicated practice, you’ll be able to connect with anyone — no matter where you happen to meet.
Use the following tips to strike up a conversation at your next networking event, dinner party or while you’re standing in line for coffee.
1. Be open and Connect
Look for opportunities to meet new people whenever possible. You can’t build relationships with others if you stay in your office all day. Instead, interact with the world around you. Join professional organizations in your industry and take advantage of opportunities to attend conferences and other events.
2. Become a storyteller
Master storytellers captivate strangers through compelling tales. Everyone has a story to tell. Your story makes you human and reveals your personal truth. An emotional narrative will help build rapport and develop the foundation for a professional relationship. Stories also illustrate your unique approach to business, and can help establish your authority as an entrepreneur.
3. Show genuine interest
It’s important to tell your story, but it’s equally critical to discover the stories of those around you. Ask the right questions and give new acquaintances time to open up. One of my favorite questions to ask is, “If you weren’t in this line of work, what would you be doing?” Most people enjoy talking about themselves and will appreciate your interest. You’d be surprised at how quickly people then reveal their own backgrounds, philosophies and motivations.
4. Be yourself
Some young professionals feel like they have to develop particular characteristics or behave in a certain way in order to be successful. Unfortunately, mimicking what works for someone else can make you appear insincere. Instead, be vulnerable and show the real you. Express your personality and share your struggles as well as your achievements.
5. Find common ground
Seek to understand and appreciate different points of view. You don’t have to agree with everything someone says, but try to empathize with how he or she feels. Don’t judge or criticize; just listen. When you meet someone for the first time, pay close attention to their interests and hobbies. Learn what matters most so you can begin to find common ground.
6. Practice uncommon courtesies
Small courtesies can mean a big difference when you meet someone new. Be respectful and show others the kindness you expect of them in return. Make eye contact. Smile. Give a firm handshake. Arrive on time. Say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ Good manners show that you’re respectful and responsible — two qualities almost everyone appreciates.
7. Show gratitude
When someone does you a favor or goes out of their way to help you, thank them in person. Take them to lunch or treat them to a cup of coffee. Small tokens of appreciation leave a lasting impression. Your humility and gratitude will earn you a positive reputation in your community and within your industry.
8. Never stop learning
The best way to ensure interesting conversations is to know a little about a lot. Stay up-to-date on current events and industry news. Read blogs, newspapers and subscribe to trade magazines. Sign up for a class at your local university or community college. Attend cultural events and take advantage of continuing education opportunities. Use your knowledge to entertain, educate and engage.
9. Be persistent
At some point, you’ll meet someone with whom you just can’t seem to connect. You may not have anything in common or one of you may simply be having a bad day. Don’t let one setback discourage you. Keep your eye out for everyday opportunities to meet and connect with strangers. The more you practice, the more effortless it will become.
Written by Jacqueline Whitmore who is an etiquette expert and founder of the Protocol School of Palm Beach in Palm Beach, Fla. She is the author of Poised for Success: Mastering the Four Qualities That Distinguish Outstanding Professionals (St. Martin’s Press, 2011) and Business Class: Etiquette Essentials for Success at Work (St. Martin’s Press, 2005).