If you’ve ever been at a conference or party where you’re mingling with a bunch of people you don’t know, you’ve probably experienced an uncomfortable feeling, wondering how to connect.

Imagine finding yourself standing beside a stranger, juggling a beverage and, most probably your phone, you take a stab at it, and exchange the usual stage-one greetings. After a few seconds, if a conversation of interest doesn’t spontaneously erupt, one of you looks down to check your emails, or simply gives that half smile, and walks away, looking for someone…else.

The people in the room might be potential business connections, might have similar interests, or even become a good friend one day, but that won’t happen until you get to know them. That first hello is critical.

What kicks off an interesting exchange between strangers? I’ve gone to hundreds of events and galas and been in dozens of situations where I knew not a person. I must admit that I’m out of my comfort zone in those arenas, even though I’ve been a speaker at many of them. But I’ve learned a few things over the years that helped me survive, and even thrive and have a good time. First, before you go to any event, be prepared.

  • Read up on current events so you’ll know who won the latest basket ball game, football game, what’s going on in the world, etc.
  • Try to stay calm about Politics, if that’s possible during these turbulent times. You never know how the person across from you feels, and you don’t want to get into a pissing match about it at an event. Keep it light…agree to disagree if that’s a possibility.
  • Make it your business to know a bit of the background of the organization or honoree or event you’re attending. If you’re a guest, you can probably check it out online before you show up.

Smile. Look right at a person — at their eyes. If I like a guy’s tie, I tell them so. But I like ties, so that’s an easy one for me. If he’s wearing a blue tie, I can start a conversation about winter sports or kayaking, by making the connection between the color of the water, and the brilliant blue sky above the snow-capped mountains. Then we’re off and running about sports, and we can enjoy ourselves for a few minutes before we talk about what we’re actually there for.

Find something in common. Most people have a hobby or a passion. Ask about that — ask a question that can get a person talking, like, “what’s your favorite thing to do on a weekend, when you’re not attending a conference like this!”

Listen. Once you can get a conversation going, practice active listening and let the other person talk. Look at them, and really take in what they’re saying. It’ll be a much more satisfying conversation. More respectful.

You may find that when you’ve given someone the respect of actively listening to them, what you have to say will carry more weight with them too.

Originally published at medium.com