Years ago when Rob was doing his Navy training, we were stationed in upstate New York for a short period of time. Living in New York came after a six-month stay in Charleston, SC. Charleston was not a good time for me. As a newly graduated Music Business major and recent intern, I had a terrible time finding a job. I ended up working at a bank – that got robbed three times while I worked there. Not fun.
So when the military moved us to a small town in New York, and I knew it would be for only another six months, I decided that I wasn’t going to try to work. Instead, as the performer I was, I was going to do shows and community theatre.
I also discovered that the local high school had an amazing continuing education program open to the community. To keep myself occupied while Rob worked an insane amounts of hours, I filled my evenings with dance classes, guitar lessons, wine making class (our final exam was at a winery!), and the most difficult but needed course, Conversation Skills. I was very hesitant to take a class focused on talking to people, but the course was described as “for shy or introverted people that wanted to learn how to talk to people with greater ease.”
That was me. I needed help with that.
Up until that point in my life, I could get away with hanging out with just my friends and never talking to anyone new, or just sitting in a corner by myself until an event was over. But now, I was also going to be moving a lot and would have to find new friends.
I was also a military spouse, which meant that I had to attend events. Lots of them. And each event required small talk with many new and very important military people.
I didn’t want to attend these gatherings. I wanted to stay home and watch movies. But Rob really needed my support in these situations and we really needed to be a united front. So, I signed up for the Conversation Skills class in hopes that it would make all these events a little more pleasant.
I remember the first class vividly. We were a class of about ten. We all slowly entered the room one-by-one, totally awkward and silent. We sat at a round table catching glances at each other and quickly looking away.
What’s it like having ten introverted and socially in-ept people sit at a table together? One of the most awkward experiences of my life.
We all breathed a sigh of relief when the instructor entered and cleared the air. She was this radiant African American woman who stood with grace and confident wearing vibrant clothing and speaking clearly. I loved her. I wanted to know how to be her. I was ready to learn.
The instructor acknowledged our discomfort and reassured us that with each class, we’ll feel more relaxed and more confident. She will give us the techniques and all we had to do was put them into practice so that they would become a skill.
I don’t remember everything she taught us, but I do remember the main points that helped me breakthrough. I wanted to share these today because I feel that I learned some pretty priceless things in that class that could be a great use to other people.
So here they are!
#1: What you have to say is important and worth sharing.
Interesting thought, no? I didn’t realize until that moment how much I devalued my experiences and thoughts. I would doubt everything that I had to share. I caught myself asking, “Do people really want to hear about how my morning was? Boring!”
But…the teacher said that these mundane things are the things that can create connection and help a conversation develop and move forward.
I tested it out slowly by saying something to someone like, “I’m so proud of myself for making it the the gym this morning. It’s so hard to keep motivated!” Did that person really care? Who knows, but it was a way for me to start sharing more of myself and feeling okay about it.
#2: Find interest in what other people are saying.
This was a wake up call for me. I didn’t realize how much I really didn’t care about other people’s experiences. Why do I care that you were late to work? Why do I care that your cat got out last night and was a total mess this morning when he returned? It sounds harsh, but at the time, I was so focused on myself and how awkward I felt, that I wasn’t allowing myself to empathize with others.
The teacher told us, it’s not about “the person being late to work.” It’s about how they had a rough morning and feel unsettled. Can you relate to that? If that were you, how would you want someone to respond to you and even help you feel better about your day?
Good point. I started listening more, instead of worrying about myself, and tried to relate more to what they were expressing.
#3: Listen for clues.
In small talk, people leave little clues that will help you find another topic to move onto. Listen for those clues and use them. For example, a possible start to a conversation at one of those numerous Navy events:
Amy: “Hi, I’m Amy. This is my husband, Rob.”
Joe: “Hi, I’m Joe. Nice to meet you. This is my wife, Nancy.”
Amy: “Nice to meet you both. How long have you been stationed here?” (an assumption, which they will either answer how long, or correct me that they’re just visiting.)
Joe: “For three years. We’re about to move to Hawaii. Our daughters are really excited!”
At this point, Joe just presented two clues: 1 – they’re moving to Hawaii (awesome thing to talk about), and 2 – they have two daughters (people love talking about their kids). I would then choose one of the clues and start asking about it to keep him talking. For example:
Amy: “Hawaii! How exciting! We lived there for a period of time. Your daughters will love the beach. Have you decided where to live?”
I offered a question, and left a clue myself (I lived in Hawaii). This all happens pretty organically after you know what to listen for and follow.
If Joe had answered that they’ve only been stationed there for one year, I would follow up with: “How have you liked it here so far?” It takes a bit of practice, but once you do it a few times, you can develop a pretty good list of basic questions to start with in any conversation.
#4: Prepare before you arrive
The teacher told us that most people don’t know what to talk about in new situations or around new people. One of the best things you can do is prepare beforehand.
What type of event are you going to? What type of people might be there? What are some questions you could ask?
If it’s a professional event, you can ask about someone’s work, their family life, or things they do outside of work. If it’s a social thing like a mom’s group, ask about the ages of the kids or what sort of activities they do.
For me, my goal is to get them talking and then just listen. I still prefer to listen over talking about myself!
#5: Write things down you’d like to recall later.
If you will likely see someone again after meeting them for the first time, write down some notes about things you talked about, so you can ask them about it the next time you see them.
For example, if I’m at a mom’s group for the first time, I might talk to someone who tells me their child is starting a new school program. I’ll write down on my phone (looks like I’m texting!) their name, what they look like, and that information. The next time I go to the mom’s group, I’ll probably see her and will have a better chance at remembering her name and having something to talk about by asking how school is going for her child.
It takes a bit of effort, but I think it’s worth it to feel like you have a handle on how to relate to the people in the room.
I took these techniques and started implementing them every chance I got. Like all new things, it was really hard at first and I was so uncomfortable, but I kept showing up and trying. Eventually, talking to people started to become much easier and I even started enjoying it! My introverted side still prefers to not be in these situations, but I no longer dread them or worry about them. I can now talk to most people in a comfortable, confident way.
I invite you to try out these tips and see how they work for you! Remember – you need to give it a good amount of practice before you’ll see results. You can talk to people and not hate it!! 😀
Good luck and let me know how it goes!