Civilian or veteran – rarely do you hear someone say, "I love walking up to a complete stranger, introducing myself and believing they'll want to talk to me!" Most everyone is apprehensive (or nervous) about introducing themselves to someone unknown to them. If your background and experience has been in a military context for a long time, this trepidation can be more real, because the nuances of networking are less familiar to you. You have been surrounded by people who dress like you, speak in the same jargon and narrative, and commit to the same mission.
In the civilian world, there are many instances when you will need to introduce yourself to someone new: At a business meeting, career fair, community gathering, and job interview. Even at a coffee shop, your kid's soccer game, or social event, you will find yourself meeting people you don't know.
Follow these steps to meeting someone new, and you'll be in good hands (pun intended):
- Take the initiative. When walking into a room of strangers, most people stand off to the side and assess the landscape: Who's there, who looks friendly and approachable, where's the bar? For this reason, at most business networking events, you see a line of people pressed against the wall, heads-down in their iPhone, or hugging onto a high-top table for dear life. Instead, walk into the middle of the room with confidence! Assess the situation in terms of who you should meet, who looks interesting, and who you will initiate conversation with. Since most of the attendees will be reticent about introducing themselves to strangers, you can project confidence and certainty when you make it easy on them. Make it your burden and job to put others at ease by taking the initiative and introducing yourself.
- Shake hands. When meeting someone new, extend your hand for a greeting. An approachable person shakes hands with a new contact, expressing warmth, friendliness and, again, confidence! Resist the temptation to squeeze their hand into submission… as many military veterans tend to do! A bone-crushing handshake is not enjoyable and leaves a negative impression (trust me!). Similarly, don't offer a "wet fish" handshake, which is weak and limp. This leaves the impression of low confidence and self-worth, and is an unpleasant experience for the recipient.
- Make eye contact. When you look someone in the eyes, you show them that you are present and ready to converse. For many people, eye contact feels too intimate and they look off to the side when speaking to someone they don't know. Imagine how that feels for the other person? Awkward. Good eye contact displays your humanness, and empowers you to detect body language cues in the other person. Are they afraid? Are they happy? Are they distracted? If you watch their eye contact cues, you can adjust your body language and words to support or confirm what they need.
- Ask, then listen. When feeling anxious, many people tend to over talk, ramble, and monopolize the conversation. This does nothing for the other person. Humans prefer to talk about themselves, particularly about things they care about -- their work, family, career, etc. When you do all the talking and don't ask them questions, you are removing their desire to talk about things important to them. Ask open-ended questions to solicit conversational responses. For instance, if you ask, "Do you like networking events?" you'll receive a yes or no answer. Instead, if you ask, "What do you find most valuable from this kind of event?" you will receive an answer that starts a conversation.
- Let them go (when it's time). When is it time to say good bye to a new contact? This is often a real challenge! If you've been talking to someone who is painfully shy and afraid to talk to new people, they might not want to end the conversation with you (because then they are alone again). If your goal is to meet new people, then it's unfair to you to stay in one conversation for an extended period. Graciously wrap up the conversation when you feel there is little left to discuss, or your interest is waning, or you wish to talk to other people. Politely say, "I've really enjoyed talking with you and look forward to continuing the conversation. I'll email you to set up a time to grab coffee." Then say good bye. Only say this if you truly do intend to follow up. If not, then offer something like, "Thank you for spending time telling me about your long career. I'm sure you'd like to meet other people here, too, so I'll say good bye for now."
When you can confidently approach strangers, introduce yourself, and end the conversation gracefully, you will leave a positive impression. Remember that most people you meet are equally as intimidated about meeting someone new.