By John Tabita

Two Simple Ways to Become More of a “People Person”

By John Tabita

I’m not a naturally outgoing person, but I’ve learned from working at larger companies where I don’t know everyone I pass in the hallways, that’s it’s a simple thing to smile and say, “Hello.”

Most people will respond back in kind. The more outgoing ones will say, “Hi, how are you today?” Then there are the few that stare straight ahead like you’re wearing the One Ring. (Or pretend something on the opposite wall suddenly became very interesting.) When I pass someone like that, I think to myself, “You work in programming, don’t you?”

Not that I’m demeaning programmers. My good friend and former business partner is a programmer. It’s just that people in our industry tend to be more technically-minded, detail-orientated, or artistically creative personality types. And these personalities tend to be introverted.

Now, being an introvert doesn’t mean you’re shy. But it does mean that you’re probably not a “people person.” If you’re not sure whether you are one or not, here’s my definition—someone who regularly strikes up conversations with complete strangers in the supermarket checkout line.

When my ten-year-old gets annoyed with his mom (who’s been ignoring him by talking to a complete stranger in the supermarket checkout line), he’ll say to her, “Mom, you’ll talk to anyone.” We just look at him and say, “Really? And so will you.” My older son, who’s more like me, won’t talk to just anyone—but he’ll talk your ear off about Team Fortress 2 or Portal.

Introverts are uncomfortable meeting new people. And most of us are content with that … until we’re faced with the need to sell our services. We’re told that this type of business is about networking and building relationships. Suddenly we find that we do need to “strike up conversations with complete strangers”—if not in the supermarket checkout line, then at networking meetings, chamber of commerce events, or any anywhere else we think might provide an opportunity to make a connection that could lead to a project.

So how does an introvert become more of a “people person” without it being unnatural or seeming contrived? When researching this topic, much of what I read focused on external changes: smiling, making eye contact, remembering people’s names. While these are important to do, I want to focus on something internal—how to be more comfortable in your own skin.

Whenever we’re uncomfortable in an unfamiliar or social setting, it’s because we’re worried about how others perceive us … what do they think of me, how articulate am I? Being uncomfortable is about being self-conscious and self-centered. The solution is really quite simple: become other-conscious and other-centered. The next time you find yourself in a “socially awkward” situation, here are two things you can practice.

Pretend you’re the host.

Suppose you’re invited to your new girlfriend’s cousin’s backyard barbeque. You can probably count on 99 percent of the people being complete strangers. Try this:

Position yourself near the door or gate. As guests show up with their hands full of lawn chairs, ice chest and food, offer to help them. Show them where the pot-luck table is, how to get to the backyard. And be sure to introduce yourself.

Instead of worrying about what to say, try listening.

When I see someone like my wife, who can be entertaining and conversational at the same time (some people call that “charm”), I often feel like I need to be the same in order to establish relationships. But the downside of her personality is that, oftentimes, after “talking” to someone for a length of time, she knows absolutely nothing about that person (except maybe the person’s name, if she took the time to remember it). She’s had to learn to do the opposite, and listen more.

But the trick is not simply to listen, but to first ask questions … then listen. With a simple technique, you can keep people talking for hours.

When I first heard about this, I looked for opportunities to practice it. One December, at our company Christmas party, my boss at the time was making the rounds, saying his goodbyes. He told me that was leaving early because he was coaching his son’s hockey game. Knowing he was a huge hockey fan (his kids were in leagues as soon as they could walk) I started asking him questions: How long have your boys been playing hockey? What positions do they play? After each answer, I’d ask a follow-up question: How’d you get started coaching? Did you play as a kid? He kept saying he had to get going—that he was going to be late … then he’d talk about hockey some more. Then I’d ask another question. It began to become a game—how long could I keep him here? When he finally left, it was as if he had to physically break himself free from the conversation and force himself towards the door.

I probably made him late. (I hope his wife wasn’t mad.) But what do you suppose he remembers more—being late, or getting the chance to talk about the sport he loves best in the world?

  • Joe

    > But what do you suppose he remembers more—being late, or getting the chance to talk about the sport he loves best in the world?

    Being late.

  • Kim

    Snarky Joe. He’ll totally remember being able to talk.

    This is great advice. A lot of introverts fret about having to talk to people, but people don’t want you to talk to them, they want you to listen to them. That can be a zillion times easier. Asking questions is absolutely the best way to handle these situations. People will talk about themselves as long as you let them.

    If you can actually get yourself interested in what they are saying, then you end up with a conversation that really increases their good will toward you, and leaves that person feeling seen, understood, and maybe even a little loved. (Yup, I said the L word around a bunch of techies.) That’s all positive stuff. And, honestly, people aren’t all that hard to be interested in. They may be the fourth person you’ve talked to today about their kid’s soccer game, but everyone tells the story differently. What’s different and why? Psychology is a science too.

    Of course, there’s always the people that go on and on and on and on and on and on and on, and yes they are annoying. What I’ve discovered about them is that they don’t care if you’re listening or not. They aren’t talking for you, they’re talking for themselves. Try and comprehend every 20th sentence or so and the rest you can zone out on and totally get away with it.

    But don’t nod your head and say “uh-huh.” It might not be the right response to the statement you didn’t hear. Say “Wow.” People are always trying to impress you with what they say, so “wow” always works.

    • “… people don’t want you to talk to them, they want you to listen to them.”

      You’re right. I may not have a lot to say all of the time. But when I do, I want someone to listen. (Isn’t that what Facebook and Twitter is all about, being heard?)

      One of the things I loved about having my own web business is that I got to meet a lot of different types of people and learn about their business. People can be very interesting if you take the time let them. Genuine interest goes a lot further than feigned. When I first started asking my old boss about hockey, I was because I was interested in knowing why he was such an avid fan.

  • Zach

    > But what do you suppose he remembers more—being late, or getting the chance to talk about the sport he loves best in the world?

    Being late! I don’t know the exact circumstances of this situation but I’ve had a very similar thing happen to me and I made a mental note that the person made me late! I don’t like being late and didn’t want to make the same mistake again. In fact, I find this to be quite rude.

    I agree asking questions and listening are good strategies to having a meaningful conversation with a person, however, relentlessly asking questions doesn’t serve your boss’ goals (getting to the game on time). It’s much like web development; you must remember your user’s goals, otherwise, it won’t be a meaningful conversation in your boss’ opinion.

    • Being the extroverted talker he was, I can assure you that being late (if he even was) far outweighed being able to talk about hockey. Remember, if he was late, it was because he talked my ear off, not the other way around.

      He obviously had some conflicting goals: talking about hockey vs. getting to the game on time. He decided how to prioritize those by choosing to talk with me a bit longer.

  • Eileen

    Excellent post. I was one of those that had to learn to be a people person. . .after I was told by a supervisor that they had hesitated to hire me because I came across as too quiet, but thought they would give me a chance….it was a lightbulb moment! Now people can’t believe me when I tell them this – but only I know that I have to make time to be alone in order to recharge. . . .and of course my long time friends can tell when I have been peopled out and they leave me alone!

    • Mark

      I am the same way. I desperately need alone time to recharge after too much of being a people person. Nice to know I’m not the only one. It is difficult for extroverts to understand that need.

  • KiwiJohn

    The The Visceral Trust™ Interview outlined on the page you link to was interesting, however it did make me wonder what would happen if two strangers happened to meet and both tried to apply it.

    Both would be trying to draw greater response from the other while minimizing the responses they themselves give.

    • Now that would be an interesting conversation to listen in on. Although I imagine you’d have a greater chance of winning the lottery or getting struck by lightening than having something like that happen to you.

  • Enry

    Man I don’t know about anyone else, but if/when someone does that thing at the end to me – of forcing me to stay and talk when I’m trying to politely leave – I do NOT later remember that person fondly. The words ‘pushy’ ‘needy’ and ‘rude’ all come to mind.

    Good article otherwise, though.

  • Cindy

    I agree, these are some good tips for those of us who are small-talk-challenged. One thing to remember, though, is to *really* listen to the answers; don’t get so caught up in thinking of the next question that you miss what they said. Otherwise, when the topic comes up again and you don’t remember anything they said, you’ll appear insincere.

    I have used the “questions technique” with sometimes too much success. There are a number of people at work who feel so comfortable telling me things that sometimes they tell me things they probably shouldn’t–including things I really don’t want to know!

    Everyone wants to feel they are important enough to someone that they capture their attention; everyone wants to be heard. They are just starving for ears that will listen.

    • “There are a number of people at work who feel so comfortable telling me things that sometimes they tell me things they probably shouldn’t–including things I really don’t want to know!”

      How does that saying go … “With great power comes great responsibility”? This is a powerful technique, but use it wisely!

      The nice thing is, you can keep it as deep or superficial as you want to. Remember: he who asks the questions controls the conversation.

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