Saturday, June 5, 2010

Conversational Ballet


Yesterday I wrote about eating dinner at the country club with my friend Andrea and several members of her network. While the fact that they were politicians and captains of industry didn't bother me too much (after all, they are still people), one thing did throw me off a little bit...

The number of people at the table.

At most networking events, you are doing one of two things. First, you are standing up and chatting, which usually means meeting one or two people at a time for short bursts (five or ten minutes at most) before moving on to another conversational partner. Second, you are seated at a large table of eight to ten where you can really only chat with the one or two people nearest you. Similarly, when you meet for coffee or lunch, you're likely sitting with only one or two people (whom you've likely already met). This allows you to talk more deeply about subjects and really get to know each other better.

Now, the strange thing about the other night was that I was seated at a small table with five people including myself. I only knew Andrea. The rest I had met for the first time as I was sitting down. The problem I had was that mostly the conversation included all of us and, like most dinner conversation, it was mainly light-hearted joking and storytelling -- not much for really getting to know someone. Most of the techniques I normally use to get to know people better wouldn't work in this situation. Suddenly focusing on one person to the exclusion of the others would have been rude.

I still had a lot of fun with these folks, but it felt like I wasn't very effective in actually getting to know them better.

I had a chance to catch up with Andrea again today and mentioned my challenge. One of the things she had noticed was that there was a natural ebb and flow to the conversation. While a majority of the time we were chatting as a group, there were moments when the group would naturally fragment into smaller interactions of two or three. When that happened, that should have been my opportunity to get into a slightly deeper conversation.

Of course, this requires a little more conversational awareness and the ability to be light on ones feet. Unlike a regular one-to-one coffee where the focus is on one or the other person, this was a constantly evolving situation that would almost require the timing of a dancer.

As I think I mentioned before, I'm still developing my networking skills, too, and this is an area which will require more practice before I'll be completely comfortable. Still, a good networker should be prepared to make connections in any situation.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go get my dancing shoes on.

Photo credit: dok1

2 comments:

  1. Greg, I have experienced the same frustration and used to beat myself up not being able to turn the conversation into a more effective engagement. What I have realized is that the goal of a good networker is to make others feel comfortable and to gain forward momentum on the relationship scale. So while you were frustrated, the other four are probably remembering you because you helped them to feel comfortable when they had been pushed outside that zone. Just like you, I always want more than that, but sometimes less is more!

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  2. @Debby: Good point.

    The other thing I realized is that, while I didn't really develop my relationship with the other three to the point I would feel comfortable calling them up for coffee, I did extend my relationship with Andrea which might eventually strengthen those other relationships. The trick is to let it develop naturally and not force things.

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