Pay attention to people. Is there
someone who can introduce you to the
person you really want to meet? Is anyone standing alone? Does anyone look
Be genuinely curious about others
Once you’ve gathered your “
intelligence,” it’s easy to follow the next
step… be curious. It’s important to be
genuinely curious. Get to know people.
Learn from them. Show your interest by
sharing a comment or asking a question.
But be careful not to interrogate.
Again, the key is to be genuinely interested and inquisitive. I started asking
about people’s shoes after my friend
Mike suggested it to me. Turns out, most
people like it when someone notices his
or her shoes. (Who knew?)
Mike told me a story about a guy
he met on a plane who was wearing
a very expensive pair of shoes. So, of
course, Mike had to ask the guy about
them. They ended up talking through
the entire two-hour flight. Several
weeks later, Mike received a pair of
the same shoes in the mail. Mike called
to thank the guy and ask him why he
had sent him the shoes. After all, Mike
told me, there really wasn’t any reason
for them to do business together. The
guy responded by saying, “I sent them
because you took such an interest in my
shoes and I thought you seemed like a
person who should have a nice pair of
shoes!” Turns out the shoes were worth
$1,200! And yes, Mike still wears the
So what other questions can you ask?
Here are a few to get you started (or
com for a list of 25 phrases to start a
•;Do you like what you are doing?
This gives you a measure of optimism in general.
•;What specifically do you love/
like about your school/work?
This helps to better understand the
motivations of the person.
•;What are you passionate about?
This is my personal favorite question to help build common ground!
•;I didn’t expect so many people
to be here, did you?
This is simply small talk; you’ll need
other questions with this.
to an older
just might be
his wife! Or
is really his wife! It’s best just to wait
until the person directly tells you; if you
guess and you get it wrong, you’re likely
Practice and be prepared
And finally, practice your
interpersonal conversation skills.
Always try to project confidence.
Smile more. Use good posture.
Have a firm, web-to-web, full-
handed handshake. Use gestures.
Always communicate in a
compelling manner. Then when
you meet someone new, these
interpersonal behaviors will be
second nature. You can concen-
trate on paying attention to the
other person and not yourself.
People make judgments quick-
ly. Some researchers say this can
occur in a minute or less, so all of these
tips can have a significant impact on the
first impression. And by the way, first
impressions are hard to change.
So, practice breaking the ice and making conversation every chance you get,
because these skills can be cultivated!
Practice in class, at your favorite coffee
shop, and at sporting events … and of
course you’d make my mother proud if
you also practiced while waiting in long
There you have it, five easy steps for
breaking the ice and making conversation. Why wait? Go give it try. You’ll be
glad you did, and so will your new conversation partner! iC
•;That laptop bag looks really
sturdy… do you like it?
You may actually find a better laptop bag for yourself.
•;I read your website/blog/paper—
really interesting. Can you tell
me more about it?
People enjoy it when someone
reads what they write.
Again, it is important to be genuine
and sincere with your questions. Ask
questions that you really want to know
the answers to!
There are, however, some questions
you should avoid. It is never appropriate to ask questions like, “Are you
pregnant?”; “You must be his mother,
right?”; or “Is that your daughter?” These
should all be avoided, because if you
have made the wrong assumption, you
might find yourself in hot water. Let me
A junior researcher recently told me
he attended an event with a very prestigious senior scientist. A young toddler
was standing next to the scientist. The
researcher had met the senior scientist’s
college-age son in the past, so … in an
effort to strike up some friendly conversation he naturally said, “Is that your
grandson?” When the senior scientist
explained that the pre-schooler was his
other son, it was very clear to the young
researcher that he had just offended
the scientist — obviously, his words had
exactly the opposite effect that he was
Don’t ever make assumptions about
someone’s personal situation. You never
know, that young “hottie” standing next
LISA B. MARSHALL is a
communication expert for
chemists. Visit her website at