Millennials: It's Time to Start Talking to Strangers

04/20/2015 10:39 am ET | Updated Jun 20, 2015

All too often, when I meet person in their 20s, I walk away baffled. I ask my new acquaintance questions about their life, work, and/or interests. They chatter away happily, but ask me nothing in return. It's like I'm a tennis coach, lobbing ball after ball over the net, without getting a chance to hit anything myself.

Is this because Millennials are too self-absorbed (70 percent of Americans call this generation selfish)? Don't they realize that asking questions is essential to learning more about the world? Perhaps all those lessons about stranger danger have made it difficult for them to appreciate that every conversation with a person they never met represents a tremendous opportunity.

If you meet a person and fail to ask any questions, the result will likely be:

  • You will not learn anything new.
  • The person you met will likely walk away with a bad impression.
  • You will not make a meaningful connection.

Of course, shyness may be a factor, and plenty of older folks struggle with holding up their end of a conversation. But I think a lot of young people just don't understand that good conversation requires reciprocation.

Here are some tips for anyone who wants to improve their art of conversation. My advice focuses on business encounters, but could be helpful for nearly any situation.

1. Ditch Your Crutches
How many times have you sat down for a meal at a business event only to find everyone at your table talking intensely with the person next to them? You read their badges and realize they're colleagues. And all too often, they make no attempt to include you in their conversation.

The next time you to attend a business event, tell any colleagues who are also going that you plan to strike out on your own. If this terrifies you, take baby steps. Ask a colleague to save you a seat, but circulate on your own before dinner. When you sit down, don't take the chair next to your colleague -- sit across the table. And whatever you do, don't talk to your colleague about your projects or office politics. Introduce yourself to your seatmates and ask them questions.

Phones can be an even bigger crutch than work friends. If you're constantly checking your email and texts, you're not going to be connecting with people face-to-face. Interrupting a conversation to take a call or answer a text will negate any goodwill you might have managed to develop.

2. Do Some Research
A lot of people are afraid to ask questions because they don't want to appear stupid. So research the speakers at a conference (and attendees if possible) or the guest that's visiting your firm. What's hot in your industry right now? If you know you're going to meet a particular person, think hard about what you'd like to learn from him. Maybe you want to ask about a career success or even help with a problem (just keep it focused on business, not personal.)

3. Introduce Yourself Properly
All too often, when I introduce myself to a stranger at a business event, they respond with nothing more than "Hi," forcing me to read their badge. At the very least, say your first and last names and where you work or study. It's great to have a little elevator speech prepared. "I'm Sally Smith. I'm a business analyst for XYG Corporation in Denver, and right now I'm working on a project to do X."

In just a few seconds, you've given your new acquaintance information she can build on. She might be interested in your company, your project, or where you live. Once she asks about yourself, you can respond in kind.

4. Prepare Generic Questions
If you've done your research, you should have a few questions that you can pull out for anyone in your industry. Ask your new acquaintance what she thinks about a new trend or development impacting your work. Just don't show off by asking long-winded questions.

If you didn't get a chance to do research, there are evergreen questions that work for nearly any situation:

  • What do you think of the ____ (conference, workshop speaker, etc.)?
  • What are you working on these days?
  • Where do you think the industry's heading?
  • Do you have any career advice for someone like me?

5. Ask Specific Questions Based on What You've Heard
This is the most powerful tool for having an effective conversation. Really listen to your partner and ask specific follow-up questions. For example, after you find out what they're working on, you can ask what's been their biggest challenge or success with their project or position. If you can't think of a good follow-up, try, "Why do you feel that way?" Asking intelligent questions is the best way to show you're actually listening to what the other person is saying.

If you're worried about probing too deeply, simply preface your question with, "Do you mind if I ask you... ?" As long as you focus on work rather than personalities or gossip, most people are happy to talk about what they do. If you veer into anything confidential, it's their responsibility to avoid the topic.

6. Communicate Interest With Your Body
Even a glance at a buzzing phone is off-putting, as is darting your eyes around the room. Lean in to the person you're speaking to with an open posture, maintain eye contact and nod to show interest.

7. Practice and Get Feedback

If you're shy or unsure of your conversational skills, try out these techniques with someone you know. (Don't pick a close friend -- if possible, work with someone older or more experienced). For example, conduct a 15-minute conversation with a neighbor or relative about their work or interests, and afterwards, ask how you did. For example:

  • What was the best question I asked?
  • What was my worst question?
  • How was my eye contact?
  • Can you describe my body language?
  • Did you feel I was interested in you?
  • What would you recommend I do differently?

As you practice the art of conversation, you'll not only improve your skills, you should come to enjoy it more. Maybe strangers aren't so scary after all.