“So, what do you do?”
Did that question make you cringe? Maybe it takes you back to that awkward dinner party where you couldn’t think of any other way to kick off a friendly chat.
We’ve all used (and heard) this go-to conversation starter plenty of times, and in professional settings, it’s impossible to avoid. At networking events, for example, it’s crucial to know a person’s job role if you want to talk about future work collaborations.
In at least one way, “what do you do?” is doing something right: As far as conversation starters go, asking questions is a great way to win someone over. According to Harvard Business School research, the more questions you ask, the more your conversation partner will like you—especially if you ask follow-up questions (which prompt the person to elaborate on something they’ve said).
In light of that research, below, I’ll offer some unique conversation starters that you can use in any work setting, including to help you spark connection with your remote team mates (since bonding virtually is easier said than done).
Let’s face it, the following questions may seem odd onscreen. In real life, nearly every conversation you have with someone new is going to begin with introducing yourself and perhaps exchanging a few pleasantries before you dive into deep questions—and that’s fine! Use your judgment on when it’s appropriate to insert these conversation starters.
With that said, let’s begin!
What to do: Because networking is focused on making connections to further your career, keep it professional and focus on the topic of the event at hand. The great thing about conferences, workshops, and industry events is that they give you loads of topics to talk about.
What not to do: Unless you know the person well, you may want to avoid cracking jokes or trespassing into taboo territory (I’m thinking of the time a guy at a work conference asked me how much my company was paying me).
What to do: Social events are more relaxed, so being more playful or humorous is perfectly fine. Also, your conversations do not have to be about work!
What not to do: Don’t stick to the same group of work friends you hang out with at the office. Branch out and get to know someone new. This will stretch and strengthen your conversation skills.
What to do: During times of high stress, your conversation starters might have one of the following goals: checking in on your coworker, diffusing the situation (such as with a joke), and/or getting to the root of the problem.
What not to do: Now is not the time to make assumptions or accusations. Avoid conversation starters that begin with “you’re being so…” or “why do you always…” And please, never tell someone they look tired.
What to do: If it’s part of your workplace culture, make use of emojis, GIFs, or the classic “haha” at the end of a sentence to provide the emotional feedback that plain text lacks. Add as many layers of communication as you can; for example, audio is better than text, but video is even better than audio.
What not to do: Sarcasm is one of the hardest things to convey via text, so be sure to use the tools mentioned above.
I get it, you’re a go-getter, a rule-breaker, unafraid of straying from convention. Here are a few quirky conversation starters that will definitely make you memorable.
What to do: Be sure to use facial expressions (e.g., a smile) and a chuckle to underscore that you’re joking.
What not to do: Don’t make jokes at the expense of your conversation partner; this will likely offend them if they don’t know you. Sticking to self-deprecating humor can be a good idea.
What to do: If you’re an introvert, the context will matter just as much as the content of the conversation. Because introverts are often highly motivated by being in a solo environment and are more easily drained by stimulation and interactions than extroverts, try to find a quiet, uncrowded area to talk to someone one-on-one. Also, introverts often prefer meaningful conversations over small talk, so don’t be afraid to lead with a more profound question.
What not to do: Avoid trying to strike up a conversation with a large group of people. Instead of trying to chat with five people standing in a circle by the bar, keep an eye out for someone who’s on their own; you’ll feel much more comfortable approaching them.
Why they’re useful: Yes, they’re trite, but that also means they never catch people off guard or embarrass them. They’re an easy way to segue into a more meaningful conversation. These work particularly well for total strangers.
Follow-up questions are ones in which you ask your conversation partner to elaborate on something they said earlier. They show you’re actively listening and make the other person feel interesting and validated. According to the Harvard researchers I mentioned earlier, the only way you can ask a good follow-up question is if you
Researcher Brené Brown points out, we often use gossip to “hot wire connection,” when in reality, it doesn’t foster true closeness.
Some people are affective communicators who rely on emotions, tone, and non-verbal gestures when they communicate. How can you tell? These people speak with their body and are often animated. Others are neutral communicators who focus on the meaning of words. They may be hard to read, so it’s important to hone in on their words, and in return, choose your words carefully.
Even if you’re an expert conversationalist, we’ve all been in a situation where it feels like no matter what we say, we just can’t connect. The fact is, everyone has a certain communication style and sometimes it differs from our own, which can lead to misunderstanding.
If you’re struggling to connect with your team, take our free, evidence-based F4S assessment so you can learn the motivations and communication styles that make your colleagues tick. That way, you can match the way you communicate with the communication style of your conversation partner.
Armed with these 60 conversation starters, you’ll never run out of things to say (or ask) at your next networking event. Remember, the simple act of asking questions can increase your likeability; it shows you find the other person interesting (and who doesn’t like to feel interesting?). And even the most trite conversation starters—like “what do you do?”—can eventually lead to deeper, more meaningful discussion when paired with thoughtful follow-up questions.
And if you make a blunder? It’s likely no one will hold it against you. In a study published in Psychological Science, researchers found that, after we’ve had a conversation with someone, we routinely underestimate how much they liked us and enjoyed our company.
So don’t be so hard on yourself! As the study authors noted: “After people have conversations, they are liked more than they know.”
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