Someone recently asked if my experience as a moderator – which is basically a professional conversationalist – has made me extraordinary in social situations. I hadn’t considered it before, but when I did, I realized that the answer is a resounding no, definitely not, not even close. The truth is I’m still a bit awkward in social situations with strangers, at least until that first glass of wine. My profession only makes me more aware of it.
There are a lot of reasons we freeze up in social situations – anxiety, insecurity, introversion, high school cafeteria flashbacks, or just a lack of knowing where to start. It may seem like the people you come across who are extroverted, outgoing, or chatty have a leg up on you, but those qualities do not necessarily make someone a great conversationalist. After digging deep into my professional experience, here are the four L’s of being a great conversationalist that may help you, and me, be better in social situations.
Put down your pitchforks, fellow researchers. I don’t mean asking leading questions which would be terrible advice coming from a moderator (“You’d be a total moron if you didn’t love this concept, so tell me all the many things you love about it.”). A little preparation can be the difference between you confidently leading a conversation and hiding in the corner hoping that no human approaches you.
Any good moderator has some generic, but useful, questions in their back pocket for all situations – “What is your overall reaction to this?” “What, if anything, do you like about it?” “What, if anything, don’t you like about it?” Having your own standard questions or conversation starters will give you the confidence to approach someone new and lead a conversation. Try to go beyond what they do for a living or how they know the host of the party. Here’s some questions you can try:
• Have you traveled anywhere interesting recently?
• What do you enjoy the most about your work? What do you the enjoy least?
• Tell me about your family/ hometown/best friend/pets/favorite movie.
• If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be? (Just kidding, this is a dumb question. Don’t ask this.)
You know that jerk at a networking event that asks you which college you went to because he just can’t wait to tell you that he’s a Harvard man? Don’t be that jerk. Your motivation for asking questions should never be the hope that you get asked the same question so you can tell your story. People notice when you do this and it makes them feel unheard and uninteresting.
When you ask a question, listen to the response. It seems like a no brainer, but it can be challenging to zip it and just listen. Make eye contact, nod, shake your head, or laugh, and do it genuinely and appropriately. These cues show that you are listening and acknowledging their response. The person may ask you the same question, a different one, or nothing at all, and that’s okay.
When I’m moderating, my job is to not only listen to what people say but to then synthesize that information and turn it into insights or learnings. Fortunately, you don’t have to go that far in social situations, but there is something to be said about going beyond just listening.
Pay attention to what they say and ask follow-up questions to get more information. This not only shows that you are listening and engaged, but it creates an opportunity for you to learn something new – about this person, their experience, about society.
Asking “why” is a great follow-up question, but be careful not to sound like a toddler who just learned the word. Here’s an example of how to do it right:
• You: “Have you traveled anywhere interesting recently?”
• Them: “Yes and no. I went to Denmark a few months ago which is an interesting place, but it was a work trip so I didn’t get to see many sights.”
• You: (resisting saying “I went to Denmark last year and here’s a full summary of MY experience…!!!) “Why did your work send you there?”
• Them: “I work for a toy distributor and I had a meeting with Lego, which is headquartered in Denmark.”
• You: “I didn’t know that. You learn something new every day.”
• Them: “You sure do, especially when you ask such thoughtful questions. Would you like to be my new best friend?”
• You: “Yes please.”
I’m only kind of joking with this one. It doesn’t work for every situation, but if you are in one where alcohol is being served, get yourself a drink. Liquid courage can make it easier to approach strangers and start up a conversation. Not to mention that you avoid the “What do I normally do with my hands? Why do they hang so awkwardly?” question when you have a drink in one hand.
Heed this advice, though. Just have one drink to kick things off, don’t over do it. You don’t want to be the gal dancing on the table wearing a lamp shade. Trust me.