How to Start a Conversation with People You Don’t Know

You’ve been invited to a party or networking event where you won’t know many people. For some, the prospect might feel energizing or exciting. But many other people might feel a sense of worry or social anxiety. Attending a party, conference, or work event with unfamiliar people doesn’t have to be scary. A few simple strategies can help you feel more confident and make some connections. Here’s how to approach new people, improve your small talk, and gracefully exit a conversation.

How to approach people you don’t know

The first step is to get yourself in there and start talking with other people. But how do you know who to approach?

If you’re at an event like a party or networking mixer and don’t know anyone, there are five techniques you can use to successfully engage with other people. 

1 Find “your people”

Look for people who have an article of clothing or an attribute with which you can associate. For example, someone may be wearing a tie that has the mascot from your college. This is a shared point of reference. You could introduce yourself and tell them you attended that school as well. Follow up by asking about their college experience. You may discover that you have even more in common with that person as you talk about your history.

2 Locate a larger gathering of people

When you attempt to enter a small group of two or three people, it’s much more noticeable. Entering a larger group is less obvious and gives you more opportunities to start or respond to conversation. There are more chances to meet a person with a friendly face and inviting smile to encourage verbal interaction.

Entering a larger group is less obvious and gives you more opportunities to start or respond to conversation.

Step into the group and listen as information is shared. You can ask for a quick recap after someone finishes speaking. For example, you could turn to someone and make eye contact while asking, “Where did he say that was?”

3 Look for an “open” versus a “closed” group

A closed group is one in which the members are standing close together and leaning in as they talk. An open group consists of people who are more spread apart and looking around the room. Entering a closed group is more difficult. The information being discussed may be relatively private, and your attempt to enter could be seen as invasive. However, an open group may allow for an easier entry.

Similar to entering a larger gathering, you can make eye contact, wait for a pause in conversation, and ask a clarification question about something you heard. Or you could make a related statement, such as, “You mentioned you were hiking over the holiday. My family used to go hiking and camping every summer as well.”

4 Locate people who also look a bit hesitant

Scan the room to find individuals who also don’t seem to know many people at the party. They may be standing alone, wandering aimlessly, keeping to a corner, or looking around the room. This is a good opportunity to reach out and strike up a conversation. You could ask about their connection to the event and see if you have any common ground. 

5 Psych yourself up!

We know from research that the body is wired to respond to the “placebo” effect. When your brain is convinced of something, your body will act in kind. 

If you convince yourself that you are confident, you’ll actually exude more comfort and confidence.

For example, when a person is in a medical trial and is given a medicine that’s actually a “sugar pill,” or placebo, they may say that it works simply because they believed that the medication was helping. This speaks volumes about the power of your mindset. If you convince yourself that you are confident, you’ll actually exude more comfort and confidence. It may feel tough to convince yourself at first, but standing upright with good posture and eye contact will project self-assurance and convince your brain that you’re all right.

How to start talking with people you don’t know

Now that you know how to approach people at an event, you may wonder what you can say to get the verbal ball rolling. How do you make small talk? What are some good conversation starters?

There are a few approaches that can work well. Which one you choose will depend on the circumstances and your comfort level. 

Enter a group: As discussed above, consider entering a larger and/or an open type of group. Stand with good posture and scan the group members while you listen to the conversation that’s happening. Once a lull occurs, confidently offer your take on the topic. Don’t hesitate, apologize, or speak too quietly. Offer your opinion directly and as if it’s as valid as any of the others–because it is! For example, you may say, “I heard you talking about the golf course in Palm Springs. I was thinking of going there as well.”

A simple conversation starter is to ask for the person’s opinion.

Start with a question: Once you’ve determined who you want to try chatting with, a simple question is an easy way to break the ice. You could ask, “Do you know what kind of wine they’re serving?”

Another conversation starter is to ask for the person’s opinion. For example: “I noticed that you chose the chardonnay. Do you have a favorite bottle that you usually buy?” Asking people’s advice can lead to better responses because the person feels that their opinion is meaningful. 

When all else fails, be honest: You’re probably not the only person at the event who doesn’t know anyone. And we’ve all been there at some point. Try confidently starting a conversation by admitting your circumstances. You could say, “Pardon me, I hope you don’t mind my approaching you like this, but I don’t know anyone here. My name is…” For many people, when they hear a fellow human being so open and honest, they’ll be happy to include them in conversation. 

6 polite ways to leave a conversation

What if you get cornered in a conversation and need to step away, or you want to move to another person or group? How do you exit the interaction?

While there is no actual recipe, you want to do this in a tactful way so you don’t give offense. Here are six ways to make a dignified exit from a conversation. 

1 Come full circle

Bring the conversation back to where it started. For example, if you started by asking for an opinion on a bottle of wine, you can circle back by saying, “Well, thank you so much for that tip, I’ll have to try to find that label.”

2 Take advantage of the natural end of the conversation

You likely know those magical words: “Soooo.” “Wellll.” “Anyway.” These are natural verbal “signposts” that the topic of conversation has been exhausted. This is a great chance to make a statement that will show you’re finished and moving on: “Well, it was nice meeting you.”

3 Use an exit line

It will help if you emphasize the reason you need to leave. This will put the judgment on you, instead of the other person. Here are some examples of exit lines:

  • “I just want to make sure I say hello to everyone here.”

  • “I have a question that I wanted to ask this speaker before he leaves.”

  • “Well, I don’t want to take all your time.”

It’s important to be honest about your intention. Don’t say that you’re leaving the party if you’re not–you may be discovered and appear dishonest.

4 Get the person to introduce you to someone else

Not only is this a good method to end a conversation, it allows you to meet another person and continue creating relationships. An example of this would include, “Do you know anyone here who works at that company?” or “Do you know anyone whose child goes to that school?”

5 Introduce the person to another person

You can also reverse this technique and introduce your conversation partner to someone you know at the event. For example, “It was nice meeting you, Steve. I’d love for you to meet my friend Mark. He’s a big pickleball player, too.”

6 Invite them to complete an action

Another way to exit the conversation is to ask the person to do something with you. You might say, “Hey, Rachel, let’s go check out the desserts.” They may or may not join you depending on how they feel. 

How to improve your social skills

At first you might feel nervous, but keep trying to get yourself out there. Most people understand hesitation and will appreciate your attempts.

If you’d like to improve your confidence and your social skills, you can work one-on-one with a speech therapist who specializes in this area. Through speech therapy and communication coaching, you’ll grow your skills in word choice, vocal projection, nonverbal communication, and confidence while speaking.

When you’re comfortable with meeting new people, it’s helpful for your professional life and makes it easier to make friends. Learn more about the benefits of communication coaching here, and don’t hesitate to contact us for a free phone consultation with a licensed speech therapist!

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