Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Art of Conversation

Do you find it easy to talk to people you are meeting for the first time? If you answered, yes, you are in a small percentage of Americans who say they find it easy to strike up a conversation with a stranger. Strangers may include people you meet standing in line at the grocery store, at a large church gathering, in a meeting at work or at a professional luncheon.

In my work with college students and experienced professionals, I've noticed how difficult it is for people to start or maintain conversations. Our increased use of technology has eroded our ability to use our vocal chords, brains and ears to speak-listen-interpret-respond. Yes, I'm talking about text messages from cell phones and PDA's as well as communicating via Facebook, Twitter and blogs. It is easy to avoid having a direct conversation with another human being. These technologies create fewer communication opportunities to practice face-to-face listening, interpreting and verbal response.

Another influence on the way you handle conversations begins with your perception of your personality. Whether it was a teacher, parent, friend or sibling, you may have been described as the "quiet one" or the "outgoing one." Whatever end of the spectrum you fall, you have carried that label with you and often your social behaviors tend to support that label. But you can adjust and change as the situation requires, with practice and a desire to improve.

When it comes to a socializing and carrying on a conversation as part of your job search, you must learn to approach the conversation with a plan. No matter how awkward you may feel, you too can learn to carry on a reasonably intelligent and enjoyable conversation with a few adjustments.

1) Before attending a social event where recruiters or a potential employer may be present, think about the people who will attend. What do you you have in common with them? What makes you interesting or unique? What skills do you possess related to their industry or position? What the top three current or psorts events worth talking about? Caution: avoid controversial topics...yes, this still includes politics and religion.

2)Conversation includes giving and connecting. Simply give up something about yourself or use situational humor to connect. In professional social situations, it's easy to mention where you work, for college students: your major, what year you are in school or some other fact about yourself. As for situational humor: Once while waiting in a long line at the grocery store I began talking to a woman by saying, "I should have bought some spoons because as slow as this line is, my ice cream is going to melt." She chuckled in agreement and we began to talk about others things as we inched our way toward the cashier. Be careful with situational humor, it should never be at the expense of a gender,religious or ethnic group.

3) Conversation is also about planting seeds. In social situations where you are meeting a potential employer or recruiter, you need the other person to find you intelligent, interesting, likeable and capable. Ask yourself, what makes me interesting or memorable? What transferable work or life experiences do I have? What do people tell me I do well? What do I know I do well? Review your resume and create a list of confidence boosters.

4) Conversation is also about listening. Ask a question about trends in their industry, ask about that person's job or other facts you have researched about the company. After asking a question you need to do two things: be silent and really listen. From there, that person's answers may stimulate new questions that can keep the conversation going.

It may not be easy, but accept a few socialinvitations or attend a professional organization's meeting to practice. It is worth taking time to give, connect, plant seeds and listen as you activate your job search and meet potential employers. Restoring the art of conversation might even allow you to find out interesting things about other people, make a new friend or even get a job. Try it, you might like it!