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Encouraging the Conversation

By Helen Wilkie

Have you ever found yourself in conversation with someone whose area of expertise totally stumps you? Here are some suggestions on what to do to make the most of the networking opportunity.

First, don't try to wing it, because you'll make mistakes and look foolish. Why would you want to fake it anyway? There's no shame in not knowing about a topic you've never studied. When referring to something that's not too difficult, you may have used the expression, "It's not brain surgery", but did you ever stop to think that to a brain surgeon it might be just as appropriate to say, "It's not accounting" or "It's not desktop publishing" or even "It's not rock music"? Will Rogers once said, "We're all ignorant - just in different subjects". Personally, I believe the only reason I can't perform brain surgery is that I've never studied it, but that doesn't mean I am less intelligent or worthy than a brain surgeon, does it?

If we're not embarrassed to admit we don't know about brain surgery, or rocket science, why should we be concerned about admitting ignorance of any topic? Perhaps there's a clue right there in the word I used. "Ignorance" is a loaded term, isn't it? But the Oxford Dictionary defines it simply as "lacking in knowledge", with no connotation of shame. In fact, I'd suggest that admission of ignorance is the first step towards learning-and often to a truly interesting conversation.

To take advantage of this idea, try some of these conversation encouragers:

I haven't had any exposure to the world of professional music. Is it really as exciting as it looks from the outside?

By using this wording, you are granting the other person the status of insider. Since we all enjoy talking about our special knowledge, that will usually encourage him or her to give you all sorts of information.

Your enthusiasm about this subject is infectious. What is it about it that so fascinates you?

You have subtly complimented the speaker, who will subconsciously want to convey the same fascination to you.

I'm afraid I don't know anything about the publishing business. Would you explain what that expression means?

When you have admitted ignorance of a subject, there is no such thing as a stupid question, so go ahead and ask away!

(By the way, this last question is also very useful when purchasing services. Have you ever received an order back from the printer, only to find it was not what you had envisioned? You could probably have saved time and money by admitting your lack of knowledge right up front and letting the specialist help you order exactly what you wanted.)

Did you notice the common element in all three examples? Yes, I am inviting the person to tell me more. There's no more effective conversation technique than asking people about themselves and their interests - and then genuinely listening to their answers. During my networking workshops, people often tell me they are nervous about meeting new people because they don't know what to say. If that's your challenge, why not turn this around, and consider what to ask?

Helen Wilkie is a professional speaker, workshop leader and author specializing in communication. Check out her audio program on networking at Subscribe to Helen's no-cost monthly e-zine, "Communi-keys", at

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