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OWNER'S MANUAL

Hate Small Talk? One Approach Anyone Can Use

Chatting with people you don't know is easy if you follow one simple rule.
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I was at a conference with a client. Everyone knew him. He was the guy. I was just some guy with him. No problem... until he got pulled away.

Then I was just some guy who didn't know a soul. And I'm really, really bad at being that guy.

Stick me on a stage in front of thousands of people I don't know and I'm nervous, but only at first. I feel like I belong there (which, if you think about it, is a nice definition of confidence.) But stick me in a room with a bunch of people I don't know and expect me to mingle and everything changes. Instantly, I'm shy and insecure.

I dread the thought of walking up to people I don't know and making small talk. Not because I don't like people, but because in that situation I really don't like me. I'm not outgoing, I'm not gregarious, not extroverted. I'm the ultimate wallflower.

So I did the little moonwalk shy people do when we want to slip unnoticed to the edge of the crowd. I smiled at people who made eye contact, nodded to others, but stopping to actually talk was a prospect too uncomfortable to entertain.

(Yeah, it sucks to be me. I'll stop whining.)

Then a guy walked over. "Hello," he said. "My name is Bond. James Bond." (Not his real name, but he turned out to be so smooth and self-possessed it might as well have been.)

He asked where I was from. He asked what I do. He noticed my shirt and asked if I ride bikes. We talked about where we live, we talked about our families, we talked about what we like to do. It was great.

Finally I couldn't stand it.

"How did you do that?" I asked. "How do you walk up to complete strangers and make small talk? I'm terrible at it. I always feel like I'm forcing myself on people. I think I'm being presumptuous. I think, 'Who wants to talk to me?' Yet you make it seem so easy."

He said it wasn't easy for him either. He said he always feels uncomfortable mingling with people he doesn't know. "Tell me this," he said. "Do you think it's presumptuous when people walk over to speak to you? Does that make you uncomfortable?"

"Absolutely not," I said. "I'm really glad when they do. I'm grateful."

"Then do what I do," he said. "Look around the room. Pick someone who looks uncomfortable. Pick someone who seems to feel out of place. Pick someone just like you.

"Then go talk to them. Make it your goal to make that one person feel more comfortable. Then you'll feel more comfortable too."

Try it. If it's painful to mingle, if it's awkward to make small talk, use those feelings in a positive way. Turn sympathy for yourself into empathy for another. Go rescue someone.

Just introduce yourself to people and ask a basic question: what they do, where they're from, why they're attending. You don't need to be a conversational genius. The people you rescue won't notice. They'll be too busy feeling less like wallflowers and more like people who belong--and they will always remember that it was you who made them feel that way.

Next time, instead of focusing on how uncomfortable you feel, focus on making just one other person feel more comfortable.

She'll be really glad you did.

You'll be really glad you did. And you'll never find it hard to mingle again.

If it works for me, it will definitely work for you.

IMAGE: 4khz/Getty
Last updated: Feb 25, 2014

JEFF HADEN | Columnist

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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