I'm a bit of an introvert -- and yet, I've learned to love meeting new people and engaging with strangers. My secret? I've got a mental cheat sheet of go-to phrases that almost always provoke positive reactions with new people.
These are icebreakers and enablers. They can help even the most introverted person spark engagement and become more charismatic. I'm happy to share them below, along with a little insight into how and why they work.
Optional: In an effort to ensure I remember these phrases all in the heat of the moment, I came up with an acronym for each grouping: CIRCLES, which stands for Cordiality, Interest, Recognition, Challenges, Limits, Enthusiasm, and Support.
I think most people who start using this system will quickly internalize it. You'll also find that you naturally replace the suggestions below with your own go-to phrases -- things that roll more naturally off your tongue. But these will get you started.
The word cordial has two conflicting meanings: "sincere affection and kindness" and "formal politeness." I use it here with a meaning that's somewhere in the middle.
These first phrases in the cordiality group are the easiest ones -- the introductions that make a positive impression and set the tone for what follows. They're also some of the most basic phrases you've likely been advised to use since kindergarten.
1. "Hello"/"Goodbye"/"Good morning."
Yes, we start with the most basic and simple, but a lot of people don't bother with them. Imagine your last experience at the DMV, and do the opposite.
2. "I'm happy to see you."
I love this phrase as a greeting, since it's polite but also packed with meaning. (Extra points for "I'm ALWAYS happy to see you." Of course it works when you're meeting new people as well -- just change it to something like "I'm really excited to meet you.")
3. "Please"/"Thank you."
Being polite costs nothing. These are the kinds of introductory phrases that are conspicuous by their absence.
4. "After you."
Or any phrase through which you're subtly suggesting that you'd like to do a small favor for someone.
5. "You're welcome."
It's a big pet peeve for me when people say "No problem" instead of "You're welcome." Using this phrase seems to prompt a positive reaction in others, too.
We live in an informal world for the most part, but trust me on this one. If someone has earned a degree or a position with a title, they've put a lot of their life's effort into achieving and perfecting it. So address them by it, at least once in your conversation. Even if they respond with, "No, please, call me Bill," they'll appreciate it.
Cordiality is step one; frankly it's about as far as a lot of people get. Think of how many times you've been at a networking event or in a social situation where you and another person can't keep the conversation going past "hello."
To take things a bit further, think about what most people like to talk about more than anything else in the world: themselves! Then, give them an opportunity. They'll likely open up. A few examples:
7. "Can you tell me about..."
Tell me about what? Anything! Where did you get that jacket? What mode of transportation did you take to get here? What's the best vacation you've been on? Who's the one person you want to meet tonight and why?
Anything to give the other person a chance to start talking about what he or she wants, believes, or has experienced.
8. "I heard that you have a great story about..."
Obviously this only works if you actually know something that the other person might be willing to share. It's effective because you're giving the other person a head's up that you're truly interested in what it is that you're asking them to talk about.
9. "This is John, he's really great at..."
Boom, same thing. Of course, in this case you have to introduce the person to a third person, but it works wonders. You're basically inviting another person to hold court for an audience. For some people, there's no greater compliment.
Recognition is related to interest, but it adds a component of reaction. You're not just telling the person that you're interested in them, you're verifying that they've had some kind of impact on you. That assuages one of the darkest fears that most of us carry inside somewhere: that we don't have an impact on other people.
Each of these phrases, when used sincerely, indicates to another person that they have value in your eyes. How can anyone fail to react positively?
10. "I'm really impressed by the way you..."
Again: Finish the sentence any way you can. If you know the person a bit, you might say that you're impressed by how they always have great stories about the weekend, or always eat healthy food in the office. Don't know them? Be impressed by how they manage to carry their bag and coat at the same time. Just recognize something about them, and tell them.
11. "You might not realize this, but..."
This one is like the last suggestion, squared. We all wonder what other people think of us. Here, you're telling them -- hopefully about something great. (Other similar phrases: "People love that you..." and "I'd like to learn to [dress/close a deal/make small talk/etc.] as well as you do.")
12. "I took your suggestion..."
If you've had at least one previous interaction with someone, this can be a wonderful phrase. Maybe you took their suggestion -- and went back and got your master's degree. Maybe you've never met them before today, but on their advice you tried the little crab pastries that the waiters were offering. People like to give advice that other people follow, especially when it works.
13. "You were right."
Everybody loves hearing this. Especially if you're a fast thinker who takes pride in advancing other people's ideas, trust me: Take a breath and acknowledge that the other person had a good idea. Letting them know that you think they're right will lead them to like you more.
Most of us want to do better -- and we often are able to most effectively improve when someone tells us they think we have room to do so. I remember telling an old boss about a coup I'd pulled off -- only to have him up the ante and challenge me to do even better. It's hard to explain, but the fact that he wasn't satisfied made me less satisfied, and I ran out to put his suggestion into action.
13. "I've noticed how good you are at..."
You can see here how this builds on the recognition phrases from the previous section. "You're good at X...I think you'd be even better at Y."
14. "I think you can do better."
On the one hand, this is an acknowledgement that whatever results the person has achieved, they aren't enough. But on the other hand, it's articulated as a vote of confidence. Well played.
15. "Hmmm. I wonder how we're going to solve this."
This suggests solidarity -- that you and the person you're talking with are part of a team. You can use it effectively with people you know well or work with ("How are we going to get more customers?") and with people you've just met at a networking event ("How are you and I going to get to the front of the line for the open bar?").
This one might seem a bit counterintuitive, but by placing limits on what you're willing to do for others, you can often stimulate them to respect you. These phrases also have the benefits of helping you avoid circumstances you don't want to be in, or promising things you can't deliver.
16. "Thanks, but I can't."
This is an easy catch-all. Thanks for the invitation to go on a date, or come to work for you, or play a trick on that guy over there -- but I just can't do that. (This reminds me of my elderly great aunt in Montreal, who used to say that she didn't speak French -- not that she couldn't, she simply refused to.)
17. "Just to set expectations..."
I sometimes feel like I use this phrase 10 times every day. We often have great success in a small project, but I don't want others to assume we'll always work so effectively. Better to overdeliver than overpromise.
18. "I don't want to overpromise..."
Speaking of which!
This one's tougher to pull off sometimes, at least without couching to soften the blow. But the most respectable thing you can say sometimes is no, and doing so will bring you up a notch or two in other people's eyes.
When all else fails, perpetual optimism is a force multiplier. Enthusiastic people are simply more fun to be around, most of the time -- and they bring out the positivity in others.
20. "Why not?"
You know the kinds of circumstances this one works in: I'd love to sell more to clients in the Caribbean.... I wish the boss would let us work from home on Fridays.... I'd really like to go back to school and become a doctor.... To the enthusiastic listener, there is really only one answer: "Well, why not? Let's try to make it happen."
At any given moment, almost everyone has something they can be congratulated on. This is yet another chance to recognize another person; using this word encourages you to do so enthusiastically, with a smile.
22. "Say a little more."
I copied this phrase from a professor I once knew. If I want you to say more, I'm interested in and enthusiastic about what I think you're going to say. And you'll probably feel a little bit better about me for asking you.
These kinds of phrases can be a simple offering of backup, or they can act as a deep psychological reassurance. It all depends on the circumstances. Either way, we appreciate when people tell us they have our backs.
23. "I believe in you."
We all need to hear this sometimes -- especially when we don't quite believe in ourselves.
24. "I'd like you to meet..."
Every time you introduce one person to another, you're offering a little bit of your credibility -- making a social bet that they'll find each other worthwhile. That's something that people notice and appreciate.
25. "We're all in this together."
Solidarity is a beautiful thing.
You can see how in each case, in all seven groups -- CIRCLES -- the trick is to communicate a positive message that provokes a positive reaction. Give this a shot, and you'll very quickly come up with your own go-to phrases. In fact, why not let us know some of your go-to favorites in the comments below?