Beyond business cards: how to become a great conversationalist
Last night I was at a work party that we were hosting - it was full of friends, family and business connections, most of whom I didn't know. While I'm an advocate of expanding your network, I personally enjoy building relationships one-on-one through mutual connections. It lends credibility by way of your shared friend and it allows both parties to engage one another without twenty interruptions from people jumping in to "say hey". Despite my personal preferences, this was the perfect position to meet some interesting people. Everyone there was friends with my boss so we instantly had something to talk about. On top of that, since we are a marketing firm, our clients come from any industry you can imagine which strengthens our network. But most of all, these were people who were genuinely interesting - people who had something to offer that wasn't industry specific.
I met so many people that night but two stand out in particular - one ran a successful construction business and another was a non-profit consultant. Though I don't have any direct ties to either of these industries, I found myself getting lost in conversation. What was it that fed our engaging conversation in the midst of the hustle 'n' bustle of people, the noise and the distractions? What I've found are a few proven principles that incredible conversationalists tend to share.
1. They have a genuine interest in what they don't know
As we learn more, we come to realize how little we know. Wisdom begets humility. When we approach any conversation with the understanding that we know very little in the grand scheme of things, we begin to realize that everyone else is more interesting than we are because they know something we don't. Those who haven't reached that point believe that, because they know "sooooo much", they're the most interesting person in the room and begin hogging the conversation. That's when people begin making up excuses about having to go to the bathroom or seeing an old friend across the room.
A genuine interest in what you don't know helps you listen better, ask more intelligent questions and become an engaged partner in that conversation. As you participate more fully in the conversation, you'll notice a comfortability and ease that allows you to go beyond the surface-level talking points such as, "what do you do?"
2. They are willing to go beyond the surface
Let's be honest - facts only go so far in a conversation before someone begins to get bored. Facts represent the foundation of a conversation; they're what you build upon. But if you leave it at that, you'll never build a genuine relationship that resembles anything other than a concrete slab: shallow. What we yearn for as humans is the realm of discussion just beyond the facts - how do those facts make you feel? Instead of talking about what happened, tell the story of what ran through your mind when it happened. Rather than complaining about something you got blamed for, talk about why you felt it was unjust. Don't just tell me about the layoffs, tell me about how the layoff affected the way you worked or the culture of the organization.
The reason this leads to a higher-quality conversation is because people who don't have facts in common (we're from different industries, remember?) can still share feelings and thoughts (because we're all human). We bond over the euphoria of love or the heartbreak of death or the confusion of betrayal or the magic of adventure. Not the weather (unless you're both meteorologists...). This bond over shared emotional experiences leads to a mutual trust and exploration of the underlying values, goals and beliefs.
3. They hone in on shared values, goals and beliefs
Like our feelings, shared values, goals and beliefs will unite people around something bigger than themselves. Even feelings have a superficial depth to them. How much can you complain together about something before you're ready for more stimulating conversation? Admiration and respect for the other person wells up when you discover that they have reached similar conclusions about what matters and what doesn't. In the end, if we can't unite around a common cause, whether that be a life goal or a religious belief, we're going to find their reactions to life a little skewed. Something won't feel right in conversation.
Humility, emotional connectivity and sensitivity to higher things are the keys to creating engaging conversation. No one loves networking when all it consists of is a fake smile and an exchange of business cards. They're human too, which means that - like us - they have a head, a heart, and a soul.