Everyone wants to make a good first impression.

But if you're even remotely shy and introverted, making small talk with people you don't know feels incredibly awkward. Struggling to come up with something to talk about, agonizing over what you should say first... it's no wonder that most people default to, "Um... what do you do?"

Which can lead to a deeper conversation, especially if you then focus more on "why" or "how" than on "what." 

But still: In most cases, once you've exchanged job descriptions, it's tough to build further rapport.

But don't just take my word for it: Science says so. Research shows that people prefer "multiplex ties": Relationships with more than one context for connection.

Say you and I both have kids, enjoy cycling, and love South Park. Having multiple points of connection, however superficial, means we're more likely to see each other as more than just acquaintances.

And if the multiplex ties are more meaningful -- if both of us have had kids who overcame serious illnesses, or we've both overcome financial hardships, or we both bootstrapped our way to a degree of success -- then those points of connection make it even more likely that we will build a deeper, longer lasting relationship.

But You Have to Find the Multiplex Ties

All of which means, when you meet someone new, you have to get beyond the surface stuff like what the person does, where they went to school, where they live...

Which means you need better questions than, "What do you do?" 

But at the same time, you can't go straight to, "Hi, I'm Jeff. What scares you most?" That will make you memorable, but not in a good way. And it won't make you seem deep; you'll just seem odd. 

The key is to preface a good question with a lead-in question so the other person understands the context.

For example, say I find out you work in sales.  That's really easy for me to follow up on:

"I just don't have it in me to do what you do. How do you keep going when such a big part of your job is hearing 'no' so often?" 

That accomplishes several things. One, I implicitly show respect; you can do something I can't do. Two, I've opened the door for you to share experiences, talk about your journey, talk about set-backs, hurdles, and most importantly successes.

And three, follow-up topics come naturally:

  • Hardest sale you've ever made.
  • Sales call you wish you could do over.
  • Sale you were sure you had lost... but somehow found a way to rescue.

In short, asking questions that encourage you to not just talk about what you do... but how it feels to do what you do. 

That will allow us to find multiplex ties, because waiting in the details are things everyone has in common. Fear of failure. Overcoming adversity. Finding motivation. Discovering ways to become better versions of ourselves.

And best of all, none of it is a "strategy." I genuinely admire people who can sell: People who get up, day after day, and know they will hear "no" over and over again... yet somehow find the determination and inner drive to be successful at what they set out to do.

I'm fascinated by that. I genuinely love to hear how salespeople do what they do. Which makes it a really easy conversation to have.

And makes it extremely likely that we will find a number of multiplex ties.

Which leads not just to making a great first impression, but also gives you a chance to turn what could have just been a work contact into something a little deeper.

And, in time, more meaningful for both of us.

Try These Questions

So once you've gone beyond greetings, consider questions like these:

  • "What do you hope to accomplish?" And, more importantly, how you plan to do it.
  • "What are you looking forward to?" And, more importantly, why you look forward to it.
  • "What is the hardest thing about (that)?" Don't worry: Everyone thinks certain aspects of their job are really hard. (And they're right.)
  • "Are you driven more by wanting to win, or not wanting to lose?" You'd be surprised by how many incredibly successful people hate losing a lot more than they love winning.
  • "Has what you've learned (from what you do professionally) translate into your personal life?" Because it  always does.

And lets you steer the conversation away from professional and make it more personal -- in a really good way.

Which is what you really want, because the best professional relationships result from having a few things in common, sharing a few perspectives, seeing the world at least a little bit similarly... in short, from multiplex ties.

As do the best friendship friendships.