by Steve Adubato, PhD

I was talking to a financial analyst named Bob recently who told me how difficult it was for him to attend networking and business “socials” because he felt the pressure to say something “interesting” or witty. Bob described a Chamber of Commerce event in which his communication phobia around small talk really got bad when he met someone who apparently was feeling the same thing.

He said to me; “Steve, you can’t imagine how awkward it was. There were long silences where we just stared at each other, not knowing what to say. It was five minutes that felt like five hours.” Bob is not alone. A lot of people have a hard time connecting or communicating in a meaningful way in settings like this. But, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that there was something wrong with Bob’s approach. We put so much pressure on ourselves in these situations to say “just the right thing”. We feel we have to be especially interesting so that the other person becomes interested enough that somehow, magically, a great conversation takes place.

The truth is, the old adage “no one cares what you have to say, until they know how much you care” is as true today in the age of Blackberry and social media than ever before. The key in these communication settings is not so much to make sure that YOU are interesting, but to make sure you show interest in the other person. Therefore, instead of thinking about what you are going to SAY, think about what you are going to ASK. For example, ask the other person; “Hi. My name is Joe Smith from XYZ Finance. And your name is?” And then follow up right away with; “So, Mike, how are you connected to the Chamber?” And then listen to what Mike says. If he is with an insurance company, ask another follow up, open-ended question like; “What lines of business do you guys write?”

The key is to feel confident that if you are truly engaged, something is going to be said by Mike that triggers either another follow up like; “That’s interesting, Mike. At our firm we do a lot of work in that area. Who heads that up for your company?” We’re not talking about the need to have a groundbreaking, earth shattering conversation. You are just trying to break the ice. Don’t put so much pressure on yourself.

Even if the conversation lasts two minutes, the easy way to end it is to say; “You know, Mike, it’s been great talking to you. Here is my card. Do you happen to have your card on you?” And then thank him and say; “Hopefully we can talk in the future. Enjoy the rest of the conference.” Then make a note to do some research on the Internet in order to find out more about Mike’s firm and what they do. Follow up via e-mail or a phone call if you think there is a way you can be helpful to each other. If not, leave it alone, but don’t throw his card away because you never know.

Just remember. You are not alone. Most people feel the pressure to engage in “interesting” communication in these settings. So, in order to make yourself and everyone you meet just a little more comfortable and relaxed, go with a question, not with what you think is a pithy, memorable one liner. They are overrated and quite risky and often make it clear to the other person that you are trying very hard to show how interesting YOU are, instead of showing interest in THEM. Remember, like I said, showing that you CARE, or at least have some interest in another person, is a huge part of the communication game no matter what the setting.