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How to start a conversation with strangers: 11 things to do

October 17, 2022 - 13 min read

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Getting the ball rolling

Keep the conversation going

Listen more than you talk

If you’re attending your first networking event post-pandemic, the thought of starting a conversation with strangers might make you anxious. Two years of working from home meant you rarely made small talk with strangers, let alone discussed important matters like the conference you’re attending or industry developments. 

But believe it or not, this kind of small talk serves important functions in human social interaction

  • It breaks the ice between you and them
  • It helps you find common ground and shared interests
  • It plays a role in overcoming social discomfort 

Small talk also helps create belonging between peers and sets the groundwork for deeper conversations — which can help you in your career. 

Learning to have great conversations with anyone will help you make new professional relationships, find new clients, and feel more comfortable in social situations. And to succeed, you can’t always depend on others to make the first move. Eventually, you must hone your social skills and approach people yourself. 

After a couple of years of minimal in-person contact, learning how to start a conversation with strangers can feel daunting. But don’t worry! Here are some tricks to help you along.

 

Getting the ball rolling

Let’s set the scene. You’re at an industry conference hosted in a large hotel. There are a lot of people here, but you haven’t had time to meet anyone yet — you spent the morning quietly listening to a series of workshops and round-table discussions.

Now that it’s lunchtime, you have an opportunity to mingle. If you aren’t back to networking yet, don’t worry — these tips also apply to settings that aren’t work-related. 

Here’s our small talk how-to so you can have a great conversation with anyone there. Before you know it, you’ll go from being complete strangers to good friends.

1. Project positivity

Even though you’re nervous, try approaching the conversation with a positive attitude. This means assuming the best in others and trusting that your interaction will go well. This will put your mind at ease if you’re feeling anxious and make you seem more approachable. Project your positivity through relaxed body language, smiling, and eye contact.

2. Start with a compliment

What better way to project positivity than to help someone feel good? If you’re not used to handing out compliments, it might feel awkward at first. But a little flattery can help diffuse any tension or apprehension they might have about you. For example:

  • “I loved the question you asked in the workshop earlier.”
  • “That’s a great-looking briefcase.”
  • “I’ve heard about your work — I’m a huge fan.”

These are all easy ways to start your interaction on a positive note — and with a set subject matter. You can compare notes on briefcase brands or what you enjoyed most about the workshop.

3. Ask for lunch advice

Everyone has to eat. Food is a great way to break the ice and bond over a common interest. Try asking another conference attendee:

  • “I haven’t grabbed anything from the buffet yet. Is there something I should try?”
  • “I’m from out of town. Do you have any coffee shop recommendations for lunch?”

They might share some of their favorite food with you, and you may even find a new friend to eat lunch with.

4. Introduce yourself

A simple way to start conversations is to share your name, tell them about yourself, and offer a friendly handshake. This is particularly useful if you don't have any other conversation-starters to rely on. For example:

  • “Hi there, my name is Tom. I’m a marketing manager at [company name].”

This will help you make a professional first impression. It should also prompt the other person to share their name and a bit of information about themselves, creating a starting point for your conversation.

5. Wear a peacock piece

Another idea to start a conversation is to wear a “peacock piece.” This is an article of clothing or accessory that draws attention and prompts discussion. A colorful tie or socks can work here — something that catches the eye and expresses your personality.

Your conference event organizers may also provide wearables to achieve the same end. They might ask you wear a pin or sticker next to your nametag that features your favorite sports team or film. This serves as a jumping-off point for good conversations with others at the event.

6. Ask for advice

Asking for someone’s input is a great way to show humility and respect. In doing so, you trust their expertise and include them in your thought processes. 

You can ask for simple feedback like, “How should I format my presentation?” Alternatively, you can work up to more career-oriented questions like, “What advice do you have to young workers entering the industry?”

7. Crack a joke

Some situations will require you to know how to start a conversation with a group of strangers. At a conference, for example, you might want to join a full table for lunch rather than sitting alone. You can start by asking politely to join, then break the ice with a joke: “Thanks for letting me join! After all, chairing is caring.”

Jokes can help build rapport with others, but you should read the room and avoid quips that are controversial, rude, or offensive. Leave politics and polarizing current events out of it.

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Keep the conversation going

When having a conversation with strangers, for example, icebreakers will only bring you so far. The real trick is to listen actively to your conversation partner and adapt to what they’re saying to put them at ease. 

Here’s how to go beyond the small talk when speaking to someone for the first time.

1. Ask plenty of questions

Make sure you approach your conversations with openness and curiosity. You can do this by asking professional as well as personal questions:

  • “What did you think about the keynote speaker?”
  • “What are your highlights from the workshops so far?”
  • “What prompted you to sign up to attend this conference?”

Notice how these are all open-ended questions. That means your conversation partner can’t answer with a simple “yes” or “no” — they have to think about the question and give additional details. This will give you more opportunities to ask follow-up questions and keep chatting.

couple-of-friends-on-a-coffee-shopgroup-of-people-talking-how-to-start-conversation-with-strangers

2. Look for conversational side doors

A “conversational side door” is an opportunity to branch off from a topic based on something your conversation partner said. Listen closely and look for comments that likely have a background story. 

Here’s an example:

Person 1: I have been looking forward to this keynote for a while. I saw them speak last year in Pheonix, and I was really impressed with their ideas.

You: I’m really looking forward to their presentation, too. What brought you to Phoenix last year? I’ve never been!

man-speaking-with-colleaguesgroup-of-people-talking-how-to-start-conversation-with-strangers

Here, your conversation partner mentioned something in passing. But, by using your active listening and curiosity, you found a conversational side door about Phoenix. Now you can talk about the city and see where that takes you.

3. Focus on shared interests

You don’t have to restrict your conversation to business-related topics — you can look for other things you have in common. You might have the same taste in clothes, a similar affinity for high-quality notebooks, or both play a musical instrument in your free time. 

You may even have a mutual friend or LinkedIn connection. They might’ve gone to school with your favorite team member, meaning you can discuss that person, the school they both attended, or what the rest of your team is like. Just one shared connection offers many good conversation starters.

friends-talking-about-soccergroup-of-people-talking-how-to-start-conversation-with-strangers

These points of connection, even though they’re not directly about work, can help you build rapport with each other and lead to a fruitful relationship later on. If you and a potential client both enjoy golfing, you can create opportunities to discuss business over a few swings at the driving range.

4. Master the art of listening

The most important thing you can do when conversing with someone is to be present and attentive. This means:

  • Maintaining eye contact. You don’t have to stare at them, but you should look at them enough to remember their eye color. This communicates engagement and interest.
  • Waiting for a pause before asking questions. Asking for details is a good way to keep a conversation flowing, but it shouldn’t be at the cost of interrupting their current train of thought or changing subjects. Let the conversation ebb and flow naturally. 
  • Paying attention to non-verbal cues. So much of communication lies in what isn’t said. A simple twist of the body can indicate they want to exit the conversation, so it’s up to you to notice and respond appropriately.

woman-listening-to-her-coworkergroup-of-people-talking-how-to-start-conversation-with-strangers

Listen more than you talk

If you’re out of practice, learning how to start a conversation with strangers is difficult. You might be worried about fumbling your words or enduring awkward silence. But you can relieve this pressure by focusing on the other person.

The biggest myth about conversations with random people is that you should be talking the whole time. In reality, you don't have to say much to connect with another person. If you go on for too long, you actually risk coming off as self-indulgent or rude.

After breaking the ice, a couple of well-placed questions will lead to a better discussion than if you spent the whole time talking about yourself. 

Approach others with genuine interest and curiosity. Ask questions. Learn from them. These skills will help you overcome shyness. And the more you practice, the more you’ll earn a reputation as a master conversationalist.

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Published October 17, 2022

Elizabeth Perry

Content Marketing Manager, ACC

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