Making small talk with someone you've just met can be terrifying. Common sense tells us we need to convince the other person that we're smart, so we casually drop our job title, education and accomplishments.
But it turns out that's exactly the wrong approach.
While writing my new book, "NEXT! The Power of Reinvention in Life and Work," I interviewed scores of people who pivoted in their careers, all of whom had to develop new contacts to make their move. Then I spoke to social psychologists about how to make those connections most effectively.
I found that the answer is a lot simpler than you think: ask for advice.
In a series of studies, Harvard and Wharton researchers asked students to solve brain teasers with a partner.
Some were told they would be judged solely on the accuracy of their answers. Others were told they would be judged according to how good of an impression they made on their partner.
The students were given three options for communicating with their partner:
- Saying, "Hey, can you give me any advice?"
- Saying, "Hey, I hope you did well."
- Saying nothing at all.
Unsurprisingly, students rated on their accuracy eagerly asked for advice. But those rated on how good of an impression they made were less than half as likely to ask for help; they were afraid they wouldn't look competent.
Yet when students were paired with a partner that was either neutral or asking them for advice, they had a higher opinion of the advice seeker. They figured that the person who asked for their advice must be quite clever — in part because it's flattering to be asked for help.
In other words, we tend to think: They were smart to ask for my advice because I am smart.
1. Ask a lot of questions.
In another Harvard study, researchers analyzed people engaged in "get-to-know-you" chats, as well as in face-to-face speed dating conversations.
In both cases, people felt more warmly toward those who asked a lot of questions. The questioners seemed more caring and understanding. In fact, most of us don't ask enough questions, the researchers concluded.
The key is to ask follow-up questions that relate to what the other person says, which shows that you are truly listening and interested.
This doesn't just make you more likable; it makes you more desirable, too. In the study, speed-daters who asked a higher rate of follow-up questions were asked on more second dates!
2. Banish the fear.
One of the biggest obstacles to making an approach is anxiety. It stops us from taking the first step that might lead to a key business contact, a new opportunity, or a romantic partner!
But research suggests that fear is misguided. In one study, executives were instructed to ask advice from someone they had lost touch with years ago. The executives felt anxious and jittery beforehand.
When they were interviewed afterward, however, not only did they report getting great advice, 90% of them said the experience was enjoyable and fun.
3. Remember that your new acquaintance isn't your new best friend (yet).
It's tempting to become attached to that successful, famous or experienced person you just met.
But now isn't the time to ask them to be your mentor, or to ask open-ended questions that would require them to do research. Nor is it the time to send them your business plan and ask for detailed feedback.
Instead, ask specific questions, and keep it brief. Be cognizant of their time and don't overstep. The goal of a great first impression is to make sure you get a second one — and beyond.
Joanne Lipman is the bestselling author of "NEXT! The Power of Reinvention in Life and Work" and "That's What She Said: What Men and Women Know About Working Together." Previously, she was Editor-in-Chief of USA Today, USA Today Network, Conde Nast Portfolio, and The Wall Street Journal Weekend. She is also a Yale University lecturer and on-air CNBC contributor. Follow her on Instagram and LinkedIn.
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