For some of us, there is nothing more intimidating than walking into a room and realizing you don’t know a single soul (we’re looking at you, introverts). For others (hey, extroverts!), this kind of unfamiliarity paired with the opportunity to meet new people is refreshing — even exhilarating. We all have our own ways of getting comfortable when we venture into uncharted territory that help us get acclimated to new places and faces.
We asked members of the Thrive community to share the tactics they use to feel more comfortable in an unfamiliar environment, and start up meaningful conversations.
Look for the loneliest person in the room
“I look for the individual who appears to be the loneliest person in the room. I walk over to them, smile and say, ‘Hi, I’m Bill Ryan,’ and I extend my hand. I ask for their name and follow up with, ‘Where is home for you?’ or a hundred other soft ball questions to get them talking. As other people drift toward you, invite them in to the conversation. The challenge is to find a polite but convenient way to truncate the conversation if it is not generating much interest and to move on to another one.”
—Bill Ryan, business coach, Charlotte, NC
Bond at the food table
“I’m an extroverted introvert. I usually don’t have problems meeting new people, but I’m not usually one to announce my arrival or make myself known to the room. If there’s a food table, I usually shoot straight for that. It gives me a reason to occupy my hands (and mouth!) so I don’t feel uncomfortable standing around. Otherwise, I’m unsure of what to do with my hands and feel like I have a neon sign over my head that shouts ‘Awkward!’. If someone happens to be at the table with me, I might make a comment about one of the items on the table to break the ice. Depending on the person’s reaction (Are they responding? Are they looking at me like I’m an alien?) I may or may not continue by introducing myself.”
—Estelle Atney, accountant, Playa del Rey, CA
Create a gang of introverts
“I enjoy being an introvert, so I typically don’t enjoy large crowds or walking into a group with no familiar faces. When I do, I look around for a sympathetic soul — someone standing on the sidelines by themselves, watching everyone else. I walk up to that person and make contact. Other solitary souls will wander by, and I invite them into the conversation. Before you know it, we have formed a gang — of introverts.”
—Margaret Meloni, Ph.D., author, Long Beach, CA
Arm yourself with knowledge
“You should also know your audience; there will likely be an industry, theme or social purpose that brings you to a room full of strangers. Do a little research before you get there and arm yourself with a few relevant and relatable topics you’re confident discussing. Basically, ‘fake it ‘till you make it.’ Put yourself in rooms of unknown people often and you’ll develop a routine that no longer feels so intimidating.”
—Karli Imhoff Malcher, higher-education recruitment specialist, Waterloo, ON, Canada
Channel your curiosity
“Networking used to have a negative impact on me. I used to believe it was awful, which just made the experience worse. Now, I go into it with a curiosity about who I might meet. I focus on making an impactful connection with at least one person, not the whole room. I keep calm, smile, and stay available for discussion until the right person finds me. And they usually do.”
—Susie Ramroop, mindset coach, London, England, U.K.
Set goals before you go
“I set three objectives at every event I go to, for instance: Meet someone new in my industry, or meet a potential client target. Having these goals settles me and provides me with purpose when I am going into an unfamiliar environment. I also do as much research as possible so I can start and carry on a conversation with ease.”
—Jennifer Witter, CEO, author, and public speaker, New York, NY
Use your differences to deepen the conversation
“Last weekend, I attended a conference where I was 15+ years older than the other 2,000 attendees (note: I was also delivering a talk to them). As a 41-year-old working mom, how did I connect, or better yet, engage with this audience? First, I reframed our age difference as a learning opportunity. My new mindset transformed anxiety into excitement to learn from others and share experiences that could serve them. Secondly, I smiled. Being approachable attracted people into my court instantaneously. I also asked questions and listened (like really listened!) which engaged whoever I was speaking with. They trusted me and opened up. We connected. The bonus? We all learned a lot.”
—Carolyn Montrose, team workshop leader, Haworth, NJ
Start on common ground
“Starting a conversation with strangers can be hard. I try to lay out a common ground. That can be anything from current news to sports, and I make sure everyone is comfortable with the story. Most importantly, I try to talk less and give everybody else a chance to share their stories. This process allows me to learn so much because many times, other people are well-informed on so many things. I don’t do much of the talking because I am a bit shy, but I can still throw one or two topics out there with ease.”
—Margaret Achieng, human resources and writer, Nairobi, Kenya
Ask for help and offer it, too
“When I’m in an unfamiliar territory, I start a conversation by asking for help or some information. This strategy generally lends itself to a nice ice breaker and initiates a discussion, which eventually helps me get comfortable with the environment. I also offer to help so it creates conducive space for others present.”
—Aakriti Agarwal, coach, facilitator, and image consultant, Hyderabad, India
“When I’m in a new environment and don’t know anyone in the room, I like to smile at people who make eye contact with me. I find that people are more likely to feel comfortable with you when you look them in the eye with a genuine smile. I’m an introvert, so this is the simplest thing for me to do, and most of the time, people smile back. I’ve made friends from doing this; a smile led to small talk about the weather, which then led to more genuine conversations.”
—Madelyne Planer, knowledge solutions consultant, Sydney, Australia
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