We are constantly thrown into new situations where we hardly know anyone in the room, or, if we see someone we do now, there are masses of strangers between us and our friends. We know we need to meet new people, but we dread introducing ourselves or forgetting the name of people we are supposed to know.
Those who do less than their best at managing those situations have not mastered three “getting-to-know-you” skills. Keith Rollag, an associate professor of leadership and organizational behavior at Babson College, says there are three fundamental skills people need to learn in order to excel at networking.
In an interesting social experiment conducted by Columbia professors Paul Ingram and Michael Morris, the researchers polled a group of business people attending a networking event. Attendees were asked what they hoped to gain from the event. 95% said their goals were to meet new people. However, the research revealed that, despite their intentions, the executives spent the majority of their time with people they already knew AND met new people only if they had an acquaintance in common. Presumably the reason was a reluctance to walk up to strangers and introduce themselves.
Anxiety is the biggest factor that prevents lawyers from approaching new people during large networking events. Worrying about interrupting conversations, getting tongue-tied during introductions, or fear of being rejected stymies social interactions and shuts down valuable opportunities to build new connections that could lead to business.
Here is a simple ‘opener’ that works for me every time. I see people I want to meet. They are already talking. I walk right over and, with my hand extended and a smile on my face, say, “Hi, I wanted to come over and meet you. I hope I’m not interrupting a serious conversation (smiling as I say it.) “No, of course you are not!” they say. “I’m Martha Newman. Nice to meet you.” The new people introduce themselves. I ask get- to- know- you questions, and conversation ensues. Works every time! Why? Because people are pleased that someone else considers them interesting and worth meeting. Since you are friendly and confident, it never occurs to them to reject you! And, since you already know your opening lines, you are never tongue-tied!
2. Recalling Names
Forgetting a person’s name right after introductions and failing to recall the names of people we have already met are networking phenomena that many of us experience routinely. Neuroscience studies tell us this is because we process and store names in our brains differently from other things we learn about people — such as their faces, roles, and life histories. But that doesn’t really solve the problem!
Professor Rollag says the problem isn’t always forgetting a name, but rather, “…what we do when we suddenly come up blank.” Making the choice to avoid approaching people because you can’t remember their names denies both of you the opportunity to reconnect. So does reintroducing yourself while lamenting that you are really bad with names.
How to Remember Names
The better course of action is to get better at remembering names in the first place. Every time you meet someone new, focus on looking the person in the eyes and listening, with your full attention, to the new name. If you make a habit of repeating the name of the person three times within the conversation, your chances of remembering the name next time increase exponentially.
Try using a person’s name when you are first introduced (“Nice to meet you, John.”), during the conversation (“I see what you mean, John.”), and at the end of the conversation (John, I’ve enjoyed talking to you.”)
What works for me when I know I may not remember the names of people I have met previously is:
- Preparing in advance by going over in my mind the people whom I may meet again at the upcoming event.
- Looking at the sign-in list as I enter the room to see names I may recognize.
- Sneaking a glance at people’s name tags prior to approaching them.
- Extending my hand to someone whose name I have forgotten and saying, with a smile on my face, “Martha Newman. Nice to see you again.” Invariably people will then reintroduce themselves.
3. Asking Questions
According to a study by Elizabeth Morrison at New York University, the more questions you ask about other people when you first meet them, the better you will perform in new situations. Why? Because people love talking about themselves…their families, their trips, and their work.
So, why do so many people avoid asking questions? Frequently it’s ego. They would rather talk about themselves, not listen to someone else. Or, they can’t think of any question to ask…and, even if they do think of a question, they worry that querying strangers may come across as nosy.
Put Your Ego Aside Momentarily
As to the ego reason, even if you are self-focused, you can pretend not to be…just for the length of the party! If you start asking questions, you may find you enjoy learning about other people.
If you habitually find it tough to come up with questions to ask new contacts, write the questions down before you go and review them before you walk into the event. Those questions could be:
- So tell me about yourself. What kind of work do you do?
- How do you know our host? (Include the host’s name.)
- I see you haven’t gotten a drink yet, do you want to join me in the line at the bar?
- How long have you worked at your firm, (name?)
- So, how has this past year treated you?
You may be saying to yourself, “I would never ask those questions!” All I can tell you is that, after 20 years of networking, those questions have always worked for me! And I have never detected any hint that new people think my questions are nosy. People love it when you actually show interest in them!
Give these three getting-to-know-you skills a try. Once you find out they work, you may dread networking less and be more comfortable working the room. Attending parties and big events can actually be fun if you are confident you know what to do once you arrive!