Communication skills exercises, part VIII: breaking the ice

October 3, 2011 by Joshua
in Blog, Education, Freedom, Tips

[This post is part of a series on Communication Skills Exercises for Business and Life. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

For many people, meeting someone at all is a major challenge. Today’s exercise gives you an all-purpose introduction you can use in all circumstances. It’s simple, requires no preparation, won’t come off like a line, and starts conversations.

I’m not saying it solves everything. You still have to keep the conversation going, which the previous exercises are for. But, assuming you’re reasonably well-groomed and your body language doesn’t shock people, no one will think ill of you for introducing yourself this way.

The principles

People like knowing that you care about them, that you aren’t just approaching for your own purposes, and that you are reasonably socially aware. Approaching with a standard line that has nothing to do with them. Even “Hi, my name is Josh,” however acceptable and innocuous, says nothing meaningful about yourself and nothing about them.

This introduction shows you thought about them for at least a moment before approaching. It also puts them in the foreground without putting them on the spot. Who doesn’t like other people appreciating them?

I call the introduction

I saw you X and had to say Y.

The introduction requires you to observe and think to use it. You fill in X and Y and adjust the rest accordingly. Generally try to use something behavior-related for X, rather than appearance. Some examples,

  • At a trade show booth: “I saw you working at company X, and had to say, I’ve heard about them in the news lately.”
  • At a cocktail party: “I saw you speaking to the host and had to ask how you know him/her too”
  • After a class: “I heard you ask the professor that question and had to ask how you thought to ask it. It got me thinking.”
  • To someone you’re attracted to at a bar: “I saw you smiling so much I had to say I like when people come out to enjoy themselves. Not everybody does.”
  • To someone high up in your corporation: “I read that policy memo you sent out and had to say it resonated with some observations I had.”

I made these up just sitting here, imagining hypothetical scenarios. I’m not saying they’ll knock the ball out of the park, but they get the job done: after you say them you are in conversation and the other person thinks you’re at least reasonably competent. You can start using the other exercises to keep the conversation going. In person you have more to work with because you can see their behavior and remark on details.

Done well, the person feels you approached them because something about them — preferably their behavior — led you to believe they are worth approaching. You know why? Because it did! The more you are able to communicate what led you to want to talk to them, the more it works — because the more genuine you are.

Here’s an example for when you’re bored at an event

  • I saw you standing here thinking. I was too. Might as well talk about the event. What were you thinking about?” (be ready to share what you were thinking about if they don’t answer)

The exercise

Since most people, the first time the do this, talk about the person’s shirt, hair, or something else about the other person’s appearance, the exercise is to find things related to their behavior — something they did or chose, not how they are. You can make appearance things behavior related by connecting them to the choice behind them.

  • I saw you chose to wear orange. I almost never do. I had to say I’m impressed with pulling it off. Are you good with fashion?
  • I saw you dressed as sharp as anyone here. I had to say I wish I had thought ahead too.

The exercise is this: as you go about your day, practice coming up with what you would say to any person. At first, you don’t have to approach them, just get in the habit of coming up with things people would appreciate hearing without being obsequious.

I did the exercise just now. I walked to my window and imagined my “I saw you X and had to say Y” introductions to three people:

  • I saw you walking with a friendly bounce to your step on a rainy day. I had to say it brightened my day. Can I ask what put you in a good mood?
  • I saw you have one of the biggest umbrellas I’ve seen. I had to ask where you got it. Most people have such small ones.
  • I saw you taking a picture of that fire house. I had to ask what about it got you to take out your camera.

Walking on a Manhattan street, you could do this exercise dozens of times in a few minutes, but you don’t have to be. You can do it watching television or a movie. On a subway you could practice a hundred times between two stops. At a cocktail party you could imagine what you would say to each person and be ready to talk to anyone.

Follow up

The follow-up is obvious: approach a few people with the introductions you imagine. Start off easy. For example, you can practice it with people you already know. Or you can do it with people you were already comfortable approaching.

You right here right now

Look around you. Imagine how you might introduce yourself to each of them with “I saw you X and had to say Y.” If no one is around you, look out the window or browse the web for a video of people and imagine what you’d say to each.

On a side note, before writing this post, I thought “I saw you X and had to say Y” was common parlance since I didn’t make it up, though I don’t remember where I first heard it. I was surprised that searching the web for “I saw you X and had to say Y” with the quotes returned zero links. Without the links turned up nothing relevant.

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1 response to “Communication skills exercises, part VIII: breaking the ice

  1. Pingback: Joshua Spodek » Communication skills exercises, part I

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