A catalyst for conversation

While traveling in Philadelphia I found a little Café to have lunch. In the dining area there were two other people sitting separately a few tables over. One of the guys had a little dog that he brought into the café with him. There was aloud noise, and I looked up to see that the other guy had knocked over a table, which scared the dog. Clumsy man was was very apologetic, and the dog owner understood and said it was fine. For all of you social psychologists, that’s where things got interesting. These two guys struck up a conversation that ran for a full 10 minutes, covering multiple topics. Just a few minutes before, they had gone through eating their whole lunch and not even acknowledging each other, even though they were only a table apart.

The knocking over of the table was the catalyst for a conversation. It reminded me how, socially, many people need to latch on to something to feel comfortable talking with someone they don’t know. In the States we often have events to “break the ice,” and the image of a frozen block of ice is a great fit, considering the difficulty many people have in starting conversations. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Have difficulty starting conversations? Remember that you don’t have to think of something witty to say to begin. You just have to be able to create an effective catalyst. Even if the catalyst is small, as long as it is relevant, it creates permission to converse with the other person. It can be the tiniest of shared common ground. If the two of you are standing there, you’re already sharing the space, the air, the music, the smells from the kitchen, the fact that he has a dog and you love dogs, the question of what you should order (oh, that looks good, what is that?) — there are so many paths to creating catalysts for conversations.

Want to practice? Find some test subjects, and begin by thinking about your approach — your catalyst. What could you comment on, or what event could you create to spark the conversation? When you feel comfortable with your ability to observe the environment and create internal mental catalysts, go ahead and try it with someone you don’t know. Once you are able to overcome your own initial resistance, you’ll find that you’ll have upgraded all of your people skills: influence, fundraising, greeting people, selling, conflict resolution, you name it.

Just, please, try not to knock over any tables.

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