IMAGINE this scenario: You arrive at a conference as a representative of your company. You register and put your name sticker on your chest. You step into the foyer full of people, where coffee and tea are available until the event begins.

If you are like most people, you may feel uncomfortable and anxious. You don’t like being on your own, but you also don’t know how to strike up a conversation with a stranger.

But if you go to an event merely to keep to yourself and gain information from the speakers, you will miss many opportunities that come from chatting and networking with the other delegates.

In my experience as a communication skills trainer, I have discovered that a huge number of workshop participants struggle to have a truly engaged conversation. They are so anxious about how they feel that they can hardly listen to what the other person is saying. No common ground is found; no benefit is derived. 

Here are some of tips on starting and developing conversations, and turning these into connections:

1. Say anything

Most people avoid starting a conversation because they are not sure where to begin. Ask yourself this, though: Does it really matter? If you know that it is almost 100 per cent sure that another person standing alone will be relieved that you have started talking to them, then it doesn’t matter if you start with “How are you today?” or “Have you been to one of these conferences before?” or “Do you mind if I ask where you got that bag?”

2. Let your brain do what it does best

Our brains work by association. When you feed it some information, it links that information to information it already has. If you pay attention to what your brain is doing, you will be able to think of what to say next.

If you don’t pay attention, the conversation could go like this:

You: “Hi. Have you been to one of these conferences before?”

Them: “No.”

And then it could crash and burn. But if you are listening to your brain go through the various implications of what this “No” could mean, you will know what to do, and you have a lot of options. You could say, “Me, neither. I’m quite excited about hearing Dr XYZ speak on the cosmetics market. How about you?” At this point they are unlikely to say “No” again. They will tell you what they are interested in, and you can take it from there.

3. Keep asking questions; keep associating

This is the biggest, most powerful key to making connections and building connections. To reiterate, keep asking questions and keep associating.

This is a major component of active listening, which involves showing your engagement in the conversation. Beyond relevant questions, active listening involves using your face and voice to encourage the speaker. Smile, nod and say things like “I see,” “Oh really?” or “How interesting”. It will help them to feel comfortable opening up.

For example, if the speaker says, “I’m here to participate in the discussion about animal testing”, you can keep the conversation going by thinking for a moment, letting your brain make some associations, and then say:  “I see. Are you a scientist yourself?” or “Do you have a strong position on that topic?” or “That’s interesting. I haven’t heard much about this debate lately. Can you update me on what’s happening?”

If you do this with body language, it says you are happy to be talking with them and are likely to end up in a deeper conversation that can add some real value for you.

4. Paraphrase

Paraphrasing achieves many goals at once. It means putting what someone has said into your own words. It does not mean taking over the conversation, but rather testing your understanding and actively showing that you are trying to relate to them.

It is another way to help someone open up. It also gives you the time and information you need to make associations and come up with some comments yourself.

Useful introductions to paraphrasing include:

* So are you saying that…”

* Does this mean that you feel…”

* If I understand you correctly, this means that…”

Even though all these questions can simply be answered with “Yes” or “No,” people don’t usually do that. They clarify. They develop what they were saying further. You can then offer your own comments on the topic. And the conversation will get richer.

As the Chinese say, “In any three people I will find my teacher”. Anyone can offer you information, guidance, wisdom and opportunity. It is impossible to know who these people will be until you start talking and, above all, until you start asking questions.