Beyond Breaking the Ice
Starting Real Conversations. Volumes have been written, or blogged, about how to initiate a conversation. Much of this advice is cliché (“Ask the person, ‘How about that weather?’”), so obvious it’s worthless (“Smile and introduce yourself”), or it’s obsequious (“Offer a compliment about what the person’s wearing”).
None of these approaches is likely to generate any real dialogue, although in one form or another they can serve as icebreakers. But you already know how to break the ice. You want to surpass the small talk, to get to know the other person. And if that person is a potential client, you hope a genuine and compelling conversation will cultivate a relationship and perhaps lead to new business.
The late great performance artist Spalding Gray used to talk about his travels and his efforts on each trip to experience a perfect moment. While he described such attempts for comedic or dramatic effect in his monologues, there is something about this that can be translated into a genuine conversation starter.
That is, once you’ve made your introductions and served up your icebreakers, asking someone about his or her travels can spark a lively conversation in which you can find some common ground. After all, busy people, whether they’re other lawyers or CEOs you’d like to get to know, often don’t vacation enough. When they do, they’re likely to relish their time off and want to share where they went and what they did.
A line of polite inquiry (and remember open-ended questions are almost always better than yes-and-no queries) could go something like this: “When was the last time you found some time to get away and relax?” Say the person replies, “Well, last February my husband and I went to Hawaii.” Now you ask a more specific question to push the conversation along: “Oh really, which island?” She answers and then you get to the “perfect-moment” question: “What was the highlight of your trip?” Your conversation partner probably has already thought about this, which will likely lead to a story and, even better, an exchange of stories.
Now to get more specific, let’s say you’re small-talking with an in-house lawyer who works for a company that you’d like as a client. A question that can prompt a discussion with shared experiences is one I use for my Q&A interviews as a reporter for Of Counsel. I always start with this: “What attracted you to the legal profession?” Or, “What path led you to become a lawyer? Why law?”
It’s really amazing the wide variety of responses I get. (It’s also interesting how many attorneys of a certain age say they were first exposed to lawyers by watching the television show “Perry Mason.”) The odds are good that the in-house lawyer has an anecdote to offer you as his answer, which opens the door for a deeper, more satisfying back-and-forth conversation. It also allows the two of you to stand on common ground and that breeds trust.
Steven T. Taylor is an award-winning journalist living in Portland, Oregon, who has written about the legal profession for more than 15 years.