« 6. EQ skills: Interesting conversation topics »

By Rachel Green. Director, The Emotional Intelligence Institute; Author of "Business networking" (now out of print).

Ever experienced an awkward silence in a business networking conversation, or other conversation, and squirmed with embarrassment or discomfort?

Interesting conversations can be hard to find. 

If you go to a dinner party, client function or Christmas social it is easy to become stuck for what to talk about if you haven't planned ahead.

Worse still, instead of having an interesting conversation with someone, you can both end up being bored, badly bored!

These emotions are unhelpful if you want to engage people and build relationships with them.

Your ability to shift your emotions, and those of the people with whom you are talking, can be an important way that emotional intelligence can help your networking skills.

This can be done by developing interesting and positive conversation topics. Holidays, for example, can often make an excellent conversation topic because they are usually positive.

In this article we will look at the emotional intelligence skills you can apply to your business networking conversations and answer these three questions.

  1. How can you make interesting conversation so your enthusiasm doesn't wane and the other person feels interested in the conversation?
  2. What makes for good conversation starters that help people engage with you from the very beginning?
  3. How can you turn a potentially dull, dry and tedious exchange into an enthusiastic conversation?

EQ skills 1: Take material with you

I remember attending an enjoyable dinner party where the conversation wasn't just interesting but brilliant. We all talked non-stop, laughed a lot and left feeling energised and stimulated. How did this happen?

I had turned up with some letters and blog topics from one of my web sites. I had just printed off four, in case I could get a private moment or two to chat to anyone interested in them and get their opinions.

Little did I know that when I dropped this idea into conversation that it would ignite a fascinating conversation, but it did. When I introduced the first topic it was like a firecracker going off.

This is what I learnt. A great topic of conversation is one that seeks someone's advice or opinion, for instance on a problem you know someone else has; or on a topic that is being discussed by others.

I started by mentioning a comment that was in The Glass Ceiling forum I was running. Well that got the women going and then the men joined in with different opinions. And this included young guys. Ages at the dinner party ranged from 21-58!

From there I mentioned a blog I'd written on the way that some people manage anxiety and money worries with retail therapy. It proved to be a very interesting conversation starter and then it took on a life of its own.

Take some conversation material with you to discuss and seek opinions on. I'm going to be doing this again! Whether it's the letters to the editors page, or a blog you've come across or an article from the Financial Review, try anything. Interesting conversations occur on topics that are not the run-of-the-mill.

If you can stimulate interesting conversation the emotions of the people involved will develop positively towards you and your contribution. It makes sense from an emotional intelligence perspective to do what you can to achieve this, relationships will be easier to build as a consequence.

EQ skills 2: Talk about your experiences

You need to add your own contribution to help stimulate conversation. Do not rely on the other people. Being able to express your emotions is emotional intelligence competency two on the Genos emotional intelligence model, and being able to talk about your feelings on different aspects of your life can be invaluable in making interesting conversation. 

Don't hold back and keep your world or your life private. Be willing to reveal some of the things you've done in your life. 

For example, when I first mentioned managing money worries by indulging in retail therapy one of the women started talking about how she manages anxiety by going out and buying specials. Yes, the emotion of anxiety was a great conversation starter!

Then we talked about when is a bargain really a bargain, then we talked about bargains we had found, then I talked about a man I'd met in a Bed & Breakfast who'd bought a vintage car for over US$8,000 on e-Bay, and on the conversation rolled.

There were seven of us at the dinner, four men and three women and EVERYONE joined in. Once it was about our personal experiences and stories we all had something to share and join in with.

Talk about yourself, your feelings and your experiences. You will never know how much you have in common with other people until you do. Personal stories can make far more interesting conversations than some academic description of events or ideas you're not personally involved with. Tell us the things about you that we can't guess.

EQ skills 3: Choose meaningful conversation topics

If a conversation starter is to work it has to be relevant to the people present.

Look at the people you are with. What would be meaningful conversation topics for them? What are their passions? What ignites their flame? You don't know? Then ask them.

Move away from the mundane topics that are spoken about at every dinner table or networking function and search for interesting conversation topics. There are lots of ways to do this, including asking people about their best holidays, their best childhood memories, the most bizarre things they've ever done ... and on the list goes.

Also, be willing to tell of the time you had a fabulous holiday, did something weird, had an exciting or dangerous time as a child, got a promotion in an unusual way, or solved a difficult problem with ingenuity.

In essence you can talk about anything. There are no forbidden topics - anything is possible, even sex, drugs and rock-n-roll; it depends on whom you're talking to. Politics, religion and money are also possible, it depends on what you say, how you say it and to whom. We cover the top twelve talking topics on the DVD "Business networking: The skills you need".

I once sat next to a gentleman at a conference dinner and we talked religion for most of the evening. It's not in the top ten talking topics but for us it was perfect; he belonged to a religious group I knew nothing about and I have an interest in comparative religions. So you might say, what use was that? It was very useful. We developed a good relationship and stayed in touch afterwards. It turned out he was a journalist and he's since featured my work in a two-page spread in his paper.

Move beyond a description of the football, the economic situation and work. You are there to build relationship and this requires you to be relevant.

However, you can include topics such as the weather on your list of talking topics. It's how you talk about it that makes it boring or interesting, not the topic itself.

Of course, your emotional intelligence skills in being able to read other people really matter with this. You need to be able to notice the subtle emotional cues that tell you how much a person likes one subject versus another.

EQ skills 4: Find out what makes people tick

In order to make the most of your networking opportunities it helps to have a genuine interest in other people, and especially people who are different. The people who may benefit from your business or service, or help you make your next career move are not automatically going to be at all similar to you.

People will be different from you. Don't go to a social expecting people to have the same ideas, experiences or interests as you. Instead, be willing to find out what makes people tick, how they are different from you, what experiences they've had through their lives to make them what they are.

There are some very interesting people if you're willing to listen and encourage them to tell you about themselves. People's lives can make fascinating topics of conversation.

You need to apply your emotional intelligence skills, though, and be reading people carefully to make sure you are not pushing them too quickly for personal information or asking them about areas in their lives they do not wish to go into.

EQ skills 5: Work through the alphabet

There are many interesting conversation topics. We can only begin the journey into the thousands available in such a short article. There is certainly no excuse for using the same old ones over and over again.

To generate new conversation topics, you could work through the alphabet. It is something I have done many times in my networking skills master-classes. I have heard engaging and hilarious conversations arise as a consequence. People are asked to think of a word beginning with a certain letter and start talking about it.

For example, you might begin with the letter A, and think of a topic and introduce it. It could be anything from animals, ambulances, aunties, arrow making, advice you've been given, apple crumble, artifacts, Australian share market, Aung San Suu Kyi, abstinence, altars, apes, ... the list is very long. Make it fun. Go through them together.

At another time go to B and choose a topic: baseballs, batman, bellies, bogans, Broadway musicals, Burma, BHPB, .. you've got the idea. You could even make it into a party game.

Interesting topics of conversation are right there in every dictionary! What matters is that you engage the person not what you talk about. You are there to form a relationship and the foundation to that can be built on any topic that you have a mutual interest and liking for.

Focus on the emotional aspects of the conversation, use your emotional intelligence and generate interesting conversations, and you will go a long way towards successful business networking.

Develop your business networking and emotional intelligence

There is so much more to learn about how to engage people, how to develop high levels of emotional intelligence, and how to be brilliant at business networking so you build your business. We have only scratched the surface here. Would you like yourself or your team to be even more skilled at business networking so they engage the people who matter? You can. With us

For more details or to make a booking e-mail us now or pick up the phone and call us and we will discuss your options with you.