Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Learning to start a conversation

I'm in big trouble for not getting this up on time last week. But I'm back on track now and I promise regular updates on Wednesday and Friday as usual.
 Knowing the 25 Absolute Essentials for Networking Success is all well and good but starting the first conversation is always the most difficult.

I'm a shy person by nature, although my friends probably won't believe me, and networking is truly terrifying to me. Whatever front I put up when I'm approaching people is simply that. Behind the mask is the little me rocking back and forth saying "don't' judge me. Please don't judge me. Like me. Please? I'm cool... right?"

That little me doesn't get work, she doesn't find a job, and she doesn't meet new and interesting people who make life worth living. She just sits in a corner and watches the world go by.

Getting over my fear of interacting with new people was mostly a process of sink or swim. In my Junior year of college I started throwing myself into situations with large numbers of new people. I forced myself to go up and say hello and I swear there will never be more awkward conversations in my life. After the first hello I would freeze, I had nothing to say, words got caught in my throat and I could feel my heart start to pound. I probably looked like a deer in headlights and those poor souls I approached were just waiting for an opportunity to escape.

It was better if someone approached me first but I was still tense and the conversations were stilted at best. I constantly worried about what I was going to say, how I would sound, if what was being said would have long term consequences. Basically I over thought the whole conversation.

I was sitting on the bus heading to a job when I decided that while repeated exposure to excruciating conversations would most likely eventually lead to networking prowess, it was slow going and my stomach could only take so much anxiety. I needed another way to expose myself to starting conversations with people without actually talking to anyone. Thus began the Bus Trick Experiment.

Surrounded by people moving in and out of an enclosed space, what better place to practice talking to complete strangers than on a bus? With nothing else to do on my way to and from my job I started forcing myself to mentally interact with these random people. Every time someone got on the bus I gave myself 30 seconds to think up a way to start a conversation with them. It had to be something original to each person, I would have to guess what would be a good way to talk with them based on their clothes, their hair, or the way that they were talking with someone else on the bus.

When I started, even the act of imagining talking to these people was nerve wracking. However after days of doing this back and forth to work, I started having fantastic conversations with these random people, even if it was only in my head. I relaxed into the process and stopped trying to over think each word. It took me months of practice to really feel confident. I practiced the technique on the bus, at the college cafeteria, and walking down the street.

The mental preparation of talking to all these people paid off at the next networking event that I went to. I started conversations with strangers again and I felt... well still awkward but I also felt confident, powerful. I didn't worry as much and the real conversations went far smoother than they had before.

I also started to notice that I wasn't the only awkward person there. All of those poor souls I had been trying to talk with were just as terrified as I was. It didn't do anything to help the stilted conversations at first but it did help my own confidence when it actually sunk in that I wasn't alone.

The bus trick is just something I made up to help me, what are some other tricks that other people have learned to get conversations started with new people?

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