Whether you’re networking at a conservative conference, interviewing for a job, socializing, or dating, knowing how to engage in conversation and connect with other people is crucial. But striking up conversations with strangers can be intimidating. Even if you are comfortable in such situations, sometimes it’s easy to become so focused on the end you’re trying to achieve—a job, an invitation to an event, whatever—that you lose sight of the person in front of you. So how do you build relationships that are meaningful rather than transactional?
There are good, simple ways to make a real connection with someone you have just met. I have been a student, bartender, vineyard worker, and major gifts fund-raiser, so I have learned the ins and outs of connecting with just about anyone. From the Midwest to the South of France, and from Cambridge, England, to Washington, D.C., my studies, employment, and travels have brought me into many mutually beneficial conversations with others from a vast array of social circles and backgrounds. Here are three tips I have discovered during my experiences.
1. Listen and ask thoughtful questions.
We have all been in conversations in which the other person was simply waiting to talk rather than listening. (We’ve probably all been guilty of this at some point, too.) It is amazing how much more meaningful conversations can be when you actively listen.
Active listening is as simple as nodding your head in affirmation, maintaining eye contact, and repeating the key phrases or ideas your interlocutor has articulated. Asking questions is even more important: when you ask questions, you demonstrate an eagerness to learn and give someone the opportunity to share his or her expertise.
If you do this, most people will assume that you are thoughtful, humble, and a great conversationalist—even if you never share a word of your own thoughts.
2. Find a common thread
Active listening marks the beginning of making a true connection, because it enables you to find a common thread with someone else. That common thread can involve places, mutual friends, role models, or shared ideas.
Places can carry strong emotional connections, conjuring memories of friends and family or evoking experiences of beauty, faith, patriotism, or tradition. When you discover that you and another person have made memories or experienced wonder in a common place, it is as if you have a shared history even though you may have spent only five minutes together.
Discovering that you share a mutual friend is precious social capital. Maybe it’s the person who invited you to the particular function you’re attending, or it might be a coworker, former classmate, or trusted confidant. But if you’re able to realize a common friend with the person you’re talking to, the two of you can build rapport quickly.
Is your imagination captured by similar role models? If you find out that you and your new acquaintance are both trying to emulate the same author, athlete, or political figure, you’ll immediately be seen as a teammate and ally.
Share a quotation from your role model or talk about how a shared inspirational figure has influenced the way you live and how you see the world.
You can also connect with your role models themselves. Don’t hesitate to contact someone you admire, even if he or she is famous or has a busy schedule. In my experience, even influential leaders will make time to speak with those who admire them and want to emulate them. You will benefit from their advice and open up new doors for work or mentorship opportunities.
One of my finest conversations with a new acquaintance began when I realized that we both had spent many sleepless nights wrestling with questions about theology and church history. We had the read the same books, heard the same arguments, drawn the same conclusions, and spent hours debating what our findings might mean for our lives.
If you can’t connect with someone over shared ideas, you can connect over areas of disagreement. But remember: this type of connection takes humility and a willingness to learn. A wise mentor once told me to learn the best three arguments of your opponent. In doing so, you will better understand your own convictions and prepare yourself for a civil dialogue with someone you might otherwise avoid.
3. Follow up
Once you have found a common thread with someone, don’t let the connection pass away. Ask for contact information and suggest something you might do together in the future. Once you return home, write a handwritten note or send a thank-you email. If you know friends or acquaintances who could be of help to the person, make an introduction.
When the person crosses your mind, send quick updates on your life and ask what is happening in his or her world. Send your new friend an article that you think will be of interest, or invite him or her to the next social gathering or lecture that you’ll be hosting or attending. As in any good relationship, you need to nurture the connection. You can’t take it for granted.
I hope these tips prove helpful to you at your next party, job interview, or date. They have helped me engage in many fun and fascinating conversations. But more important, they have led to some of the most meaningful relationships in my life.
So relax, take a deep breath, and don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation!
John Burtka is an alumnus of Hillsdale College and currently works as a development associate for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.