5 Phases In Conversation: What To Do After The "How Are You?" Has Come And Gone

5 Phases In Conversation: What To Do After The "How Are You?" Has Come And Gone


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Conversations with new people can be awkward. “And so…” …. "Uh…"

That premonition of your prepared thoughts don’t often come out like they do in the movies when talking to important strangers.

Remember the article on pitching a deal where I used to be over-prepared with my own agenda? [Art Of The Delightful Pitch] I loved The Agenda, because it helped me know what I thought I should say in meetings and sales pitches. But what happens when there's no agenda? And no bullet point list of topics to be covered in a discussion?Even social networks give you time to think, plan, and respond. But when it's face to face, most people don't remember because of a rehearsed rhetoric—they measure you by connection. Herein lies the challenge of meeting new people, whether it be at a cocktail party, a start-up blitz or a plane ride.

I used to hate cocktail parties. I didn’t know how to hold my glass, snack on a salmon-filled crumpet, and spark a firing conversation with strangers, all while watching other people smoothly flow in and out of new relationships like they grew up swapping lunches with strangers.

It was probably so many failed attempts where people walked away from me that got me to think through this…And it lead me to this point where I do this for a living. Here are a few techniques that work for me when meeting someone new. It’s simple and easy to remember (just don’t say them out loud before you start a new conversation).

5 Phases In Conversation (After the “How are you?” has come and gone)

1. The Box of Commending Questions (or the Ego Strokers)

You've heard this before: when you start a new conversation, focus most of your attention on the other person, and notice positive traits or attributes about who he or she is and their work. This is good, but how do you do this effectively without seeming like a highly skilled and trained stalker?

Start with this in mind: understand then be understood. Get to know the person you're talking to before you try to get them to relate to you. In relating to them first, they will feel more like they know you and it will be a great start to a relationship. The best way I've found to do this is to genuinely care. Put your agenda to the side and care only about their project, idea, family, etc. Be them for the first 30 seconds of the conversation.

Now, open up the box of questions and fire away. People, for the most case, have something they’d love to share. Even if it’s as simple as “I saw your website. Love how you used animation to get the message across. What gave you that idea?” The response to that statement and question could literally make you come across as a great guy, even though your new colleague did all the talking. Notice how the question deliberately leads away from the one word answer, the other person has to talk beyond ‘fine’, ‘yes’ and ‘no’.

Here's another example: "Hi Sarah, what do you do?" She replies, "I do trade finance (water drilling, mobile application development, whatever, doesn't matter…)…"

You reply, "Oh wow, ok? Tell me a bit more about that."

Be honest here, if you don't understand say "Wow, can you help me understand what that actually means?" (smile)

Or "Wow, very cool. How'd you get started in that? Seems like a very specialized occupation and skill set."

Then away we go with the new relationship. (Key: genuinely care. Don't be obnoxious like the dude who can't keep the chicken salad croissant in his mouth while spewing questions rapid fire at you…don't be that guy).

2. The Storyboard

When people are giving one-word answers, it’s like playing tennis against a wall. Sometimes other people also struggle with the starting line of small talk. Something interesting has to be told. The disclosing of a personal “adventure" or interesting moment in your past often breaks up the proverbial ice, especially when there is humor. This helps the seemingly stuck person that you’re chatting to dive into your world for a bit and come out themselves. It also makes you more relatable.

Example: "My goodness, I was driving over here this evening and got pulled over by the cops…"

OR, "When I was walking in tonight, I think I walked into the wrong room. There were a lot of older people sitting around playing card games down the hall and I walked in and said 'Is this the startup event?' Didn't go over too well. Haha, glad I found the right place…"[then introduce yourself]

3. The Bag of Experiments

Pull out this bag when nothing’s going right. Try something different. Grab another drink. Suggest a dance. Comment on the music. Make an appropriate comment about another guest’s fashion faux pax. Introduce yourself as something completely random and then go with it for a few minutes. I was at an event for entrepreneurs recently and got a bit bored with a few of the techy developer types badgering me for business. So I started introducing myself as a beekeeper. "I'm a beekeeper. From Maine." It brought some great laughter from a few of my colleagues and lightened the mood just a bit.

4. Historical Language

Talk based on inside jokes, past experiences. This phase is usually exclusive to one particular relationship or group of friends. That group of friends laughing about the American Football match you cannot understand, they are in this phase of relationship. This level is what cliques use. It is punctuated with ‘slang’ and terms that the group will relate to. There is no ice to break as you are all getting along swimmingly.

However, how do you get into the special group if you don't know anyone in the group? For example, if you're an American and have never been to Zimbabwe before, you may find yourself with all of the various colloquial language and terms being thrown around here "Tune me the gwan brah," "Let's gwaz," "Eeeeh shamwari, I saw that new item and it was lakker, bruh," are all common phrases that may throw you for a loop.

Here are a few ideas to combat this outcast feeling—if you truly want into the clique, do one of the following:

  1. Get introduced by someone in the group who can bridge the clique vibe.
  2. Win the group over with a mutual love of something ancillary to the main theme. So if they all love football, and you don't have a clue, but you know quite a bit about statistics, then you could win the group over with your knowledge of statistics and how they are used to set bets and wagers on sporting events.

Use the Box of Ego Strokers or Storyboard phases to win a relationship, then get introduced to the new group by your "trusted friend." Find a common point as quickly as possible and you'll find that the clique will accept you faster than Harvard accepted Mark Zuckerberg.

5. Heart Blanche

Caution: this phase should only be accessed if you have successfully travelled through 2 prior phases in your conversation.

Going beyond the surface of your heart in what you reveal and what you ask. Dreams, true love, purpose, God moments, and major life revelations all go in here. It requires a level of trust and openness to engage at this level. An example of this may be if you have someone who is very interested in what you do, you can tell them why you do it and the vision/dream and story behind you.

If you grew up in a rural area in Africa, you have a powerful story. Here's how a "Heart Blanche" story might go: "Growing up, we didn't have money for shoes. I determined that I would do whatever it would take to be able to help my community develop and provide the basic necessities for everyone in the area. That's why I've started this venture, not only will we be drilling water for the commercial farmers, but for every well we drill commercially, it will allow us to drill 2 privately for the rural communities. Every one of our clients plays a direct part in helping us help others."

Use this phase sparingly, but if you happen to have a new connection make it through to this phase, that relationship may be a great start to a long-term and close business relationship.

Wrapping It All Up

A conversation can flow through each phase or you can just use one. No phase alone is sufficient for a whole relationship. Not everyone needs to see the Bag of Experiments or Heart Blanche (that is for a select few). Hitting the other three though is a sure fire recipe for conversation success in any situation. Being able to snag two glasses of champagne from a passing waiter (all while not splutter salmon crumpet over the guest’s dress as you laugh) are additional skills needed to survive the cocktail party-networking scene.

(photo: ivan m)