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When you’re in a social situation, do you typically wait for people to come and talk to you? Do you let opportunities pass by because you’re uncomfortable initiating a conversation?
Approaching others can be intimidating. You might prefer to keep to yourself or talk to people you already know rather than risk rejection or awkwardness. But, in reality, rejection isn’t a likely outcome. You’ll probably end up being glad that you walked across the room.
Continue reading to learn how to approach someone with confidence.
How to Approach Someone
In The Fine Art of Small Talk, Debra Fine suggests that you should actively approach strangers and accept that, if you want to have conversations, it’s your job to start them. She explains that the second most common fear in America is of starting conversations, particularly with strangers. Because this fear is so common, you’re unlikely to face rejection if you initiate conversation—in fact, your conversational partner is likely to be relieved that you made the effort.
If you’re afraid to talk to someone because you fear you’ll have nothing in common, Fine suggests you keep in mind that humans are more alike than they are different. If you give other people a chance, you’ll find you can connect with almost anyone.
Let’s explore a three-step process for how to approach someone and initiate a conversation.
Step #1: Choose Someone to Approach
Fine suggests that you first scan the room and find someone who’s on their own, who’s not engaged in a conversation or an activity, and who makes eye contact with you. When you make eye contact, smile at the person. Fine explains that this shows the other party you’re interested in them and immediately establishes a rapport. Their natural response will likely be to smile back; right off the bat, the two of you share a positive feeling.
Additionally, in How to Talk to Anyone, Leil Lowndes suggests that you read body language cues to differentiate between those who want to be approached and those who don’t. A relaxed and open stance implies that you’re welcome to approach them. If they’re slumped, guarded, or fidgety, you probably won’t get the warm response that you want.
Time Your Approach
In Captivate, Vanessa Van Edwards recommends that you interact with people in the places and at the times when they’re most likely to be receptive to conversation. In general, this means approaching people once they’re settled in. She says the best locations and times to engage with people are:
- Near the bar, once people have gotten their drinks and are looking to socialize
- With the host, who can introduce you to other people
- Where people are sitting and eating and are open to company and conversation
On the other hand, you’ll find it difficult to approach others when they’re in transition—for example, when they’re arriving at or leaving an event, getting drinks at the bar, or using the bathroom.
Step #2: Introduce Yourself
Once you’ve chosen who you want to approach, you’ll then need to confidently introduce yourself to them. Let’s explore three different methods that will help you express your interest in others and set the stage for engaging conversations.
Method 1: Say, “Hi. My Name Is…”
Fine suggests that, once you’ve chosen who to approach and have established rapport through a smile, you should walk up to them, make eye contact, smile again, and shake their hand. Say, “Hi. My name is…” Then, stay focused as they return the introduction. Remember their name and use it immediately: For instance, say “Nice to meet you, Albert!” If you miss a person’s name, Fine recommends asking them to repeat it. Everyone has the right to be called by their name, she notes, and those with difficult names will appreciate it (and feel important).
In How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie expands on Fine’s suggestion by explaining that everyone is thrilled when someone learns and uses their name. Carnegie argues that a person’s name is the most important word in any language to them—saying it is a subtle and welcome compliment. In contrast, forgetting a name or getting it wrong suggests you didn’t care enough to get it right. Use a person’s name often, he says, and respect it.
Method 2: Ask for Introductions
According to Lowndes, another effective way to approach new people is to ask mutual acquaintances to make introductions for you. Before they introduce you, ensure that they’ll pad out these introductions with a few details, such as the new person’s hobbies or interests, so that you have the opportunity to show your interest and start a discussion.
Alternatively, if your acquaintances are too busy to introduce you, ask them for information so that you can find a shared interest to use as an icebreaker. With this information, you can easily approach someone new using a variation of the following line: “Hey, I was just talking to … and she told me that you … .”
Method 3: Use and Take Notice of Visual Gimmicks
Alternatively, Lowndes suggests that you can forgo standard introductions and, instead, draw attention to yourself by wearing or carrying something unusual, such as a unique brooch or a colorful shirt. This gives people an excuse to approach you and gives you something to talk about. Likewise, pay attention to what those around you are wearing or carrying so that you have an excuse to approach them. Using a complimentary phrase such as, “Wow, I love your shoes! Where are they from?” not only helps you to start a conversation, but it also shows others that you’re interested in them and what they have to say.
Step #3: Start a Conversation
The three methods we’ve just covered will help you feel more comfortable about introducing yourself to others. Now let’s look at four different methods for transitioning from this initial encounter into engaging conversations.
Method 1: Break the Ice
According to Fine, it doesn’t matter much what you say as an opener; in theory, you could say anything. What matters is that you initiate the conversation and show genuine interest in the other person’s answer. Her recommendation, if you’re having trouble, is to open with a statement that uses the context of the situation, event, or venue, and then ask them a related question.
Psychiatrist and professor Mark Goulston (Just Listen) reiterates the importance of expressing interest in others when starting conversations: To gain someone’s attention and curiosity, focus on learning about them instead of talking about yourself. Goulston explains that if you try to sound interesting, you risk coming off as annoying or self-obsessed. Instead, by displaying sincere interest in the person you’re talking to, you’ll likely inspire them to reciprocate interest in you.
Method 2: Initiate Thought-Provoking Conversations
Van Edwards asserts that to make others like and remember you, you have to break out of the boring small talk mold and ignite interesting conversations that push people to think of new and different things. She explains that we’re most compelling to others when we’re unscripted because novelty triggers activity in the part of the brain responsible for memory and learning and is linked to dopamine pathways that arouse pleasure and fuel interest.
To start novel conversations, you can ask questions that 1) people don’t expect, to shake them out of their rut, and 2) engage people by prompting them to talk about subjects they love and are excited to talk about. For example, “What’s the most exciting thing that happened to you today?” or “What’s the one thing you’re most looking forward to doing this year?”
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Here's what you'll find in our full The Master Guides: Small Talk With Ease summary:
- How to confidently approach and engage in conversations with new people
- Suggestions and techniques from a range of authors and experts
- Techniques to appear more approachable—without saying a word