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5 Conversation Starters (That Aren’t About Sports!)

By: Bonnie Coffey


Having worked a good portion of my life on issues that impact women, I consider myself a feminist. Before you dismiss reading any further, I challenge you to look at the dictionary definition of a feminist: someone who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. See, that’s not scary at all!

As a feminist and someone who teaches the skills and strategies of face-to-face networking, I see pockets of interesting challenges between the sexes as they work to not only increase the size of their networks but also improve its quality and effectiveness.
One of the characteristics of a great personal network is diversity, in all its forms: age, race/ethnicity, geography, and gender. Most people have circles of networking contacts that all too frequently look just like they do, and that generally means they are gender lopsided.
As a networking coach, I work one-on-one with men and women who are serious about being not only adept but effective at this important professional skill. In coaching sessions, I am hearing a consistent challenge from women. Networking conversations in a group with male and female colleagues begin earnestly enough, with introductions all around and a general discussion about the particular sort of work or focus of each individual. 
However, shortly after the basic niceties are concluded and that inevitable silence happens that screams, “OK, what do we talk about NOW?” a serious gender lens inserts itself: the conversation reverts to sports.
Certainly there are women who are interested in sports, but I daresay that immediately diverting the small talk to last night’s stats and scores is—at the very least—not very inclusive.
It precludes those who aren’t interested in the topic (making the conversation a decidedly male domain) and those who are not familiar with American sports and their teams (excluding those from other countries).
At best, falling back on sports talk shows your inability to find a topic that is inclusionary and that demonstrates your lack of interest in learning more about others in the group. It is, as my Southern-born and bred mother would say, “simply polite to include everyone in the room.”
The challenge of finding ways to talk with a diverse group of people—and, more importantly, demonstrating that you are interested in a diverse group of people—is one that anyone can master. It involves what we call being “seriously curious” about those around you, having a desire to learn more about these new folks.
Here are some terrific ways to break the ice that will earn you the label of a great conversationalist:
  • Create open-ended questions. Use the “who, what, where, when, why and how” approach that you learned in high school journalism class. Open-ended questions put you on the road to good conversations.
  • Take clichés seriously. If someone says, “Oh, I’ve been really busy,” ask, “What have you been busy doing?” If somebody says, “I’m really tired,” ask, “Is this an especially busy time of year for you?”
  • Tune into the event or activity you’re engaged in. “What about this session caught your attention?” or “You seem to know lots of people here. Tell me about your involvement with the group.” The immediacy of these questions is energizing.
  • Explore origins and beginnings. “How did you first get started in this?” “How did that begin?” “How did you become interested in this?” “When was the first moment realized you wanted to have your own business (or be in sales or wanted to do international work)?”
  • Ask about the person’s agenda. One of my personal favorite questions is, “What have you been working on lately?”
Make a conscious effort to be inclusive in the topics of your conversation. It’s the mark of an exceptional and skilled networker.
Published: March 6, 2014

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Bonnie Coffey

Bonnie Coffey is a business and community leader and, as a Certified Trainer and Associate with Contacts Count, LLC, she teaches the skills and strategies of face-to-face (F2F) networking for professional and personal success. Her far-reaching career has impacted business, political, financial, and leadership organizations throughout the country. Her client list includes AARP® Foundation, Heinz Family Philanthropies, U.S. Department of Labor–Women’s Bureau, University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, American Chemical Society, Decorating Den, American Business Women’s Association (ABWA), McCombs School of Business/University of Texas at Austin, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and Union Pacific. She’s been featured in Kiplinger’s Personal Finance Magazine, Creative Training Techniques, Women in Business and has been a columnist with the Lincoln Journal Star since 2001.  Her book, “Dreams for Our Daughters,” embodies her belief in the future of our next generation of women leaders.

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