How to Engage Absolutely Anybody

Back when I was working in TV news a group of us from the station attended a baseball game together.

And I learned one of the most important lessons of my career.

I found myself sitting next to a guy from a different shift, someone I really didn’t know at all. Almost immediately, as I was still setting up my required chips and dogs, he and I began to chat.

Two hours later I realized I didn’t know who was winning or what the score was, but I didn’t care. I had just had a great discussion with this person. So much so that I was struck by it.

He was really great at engaging in conversation, I thought.

He could really keep my attention, I thought.

He was a really interesting person, I thought.

And somehow, for reasons I couldn’t explain at the time, I felt especially good after it was over.  

In truth, I felt special.

It turns out that this guy worked on investigative news pieces for the station, and several years later, when he became an FBI agent (no lie), I figured out just how he’d mastered that conversation.

He’d spent almost that entire conversation simply asking me questions…questions about my job and my home state, about my interests and my family.

And I just chatted away, answering each one as the crowds around me cheered on the players and caught fly balls and did the wave.

What I began learning then and what I know for sure now is that the single best way to engage someone in conversation – whether a prospective donor or a board member, your new mother-in-law or the person sitting next to you at a networking luncheon – is to ask them questions.

If you do it right, people love it.

Now, to be clear, I’m not talking about the standard questions everybody asks at every opportunity to fill every empty space.

 The obvious ones…the what do you do?…did you have a nice weekend?…do you have children?

Those are boring and uninventive. We all ask them all the time and we often don’t really pay attention to the answers.

Instead I’m talking about questions that often start with how or why, questions like… how did you wind up choosing this line of work? or how in the world do you get your work done and still pick up your kids on time? or why did you choose psychology as your major in college?

These kinds of questions explore the person’s background and history, their opinions and perspectives. They must be given a bit of thought before being answered.

Most importantly, they let the person know you are interested.

Which leads me to my next point.

Be interested.

Don’t ask someone a meaningful question and then let your eyes wander around the coffee shop while they answer you. They’ll know.

The title of this post was not the trick to engaging absolutely anybody. There are no tricks here.

If you want to engage people you have to show you are genuinely interested in who they are and what they have to say.  You have to make them feel special.

Start with a great question, then use their answer to ask your next one. I find myself asking things like what do you mean by that? and why did you feel that way? as things progress.

 Pay attention and focus.  

Avoid the very common temptation to talk about yourself, and give this a try next time you need to engage someone.

Now to my final point.

And that’s the all-time best kind of question you can ask to engage people…the kind that truly makes them feel like you care.

It’s when you ask people for their opinions.

When you ask someone for feedback on an issue or project, then really listen to the answer and thank them for their input, you are entering a new level in your relationship.

Got a board member with whom you can’t connect? Bring them a marketing piece and get their take on the message.

Want to get a donor to talk to you? Ask them what they think of your strategic plan and what might be missing.

Want to get in with your spouse’s boss’ wife? Ask her about her favorite place for brunch in all of San Diego.

Then listen to the answers and take them seriously. And if you use their feedback in any way, let them know.

In the end, we’re all just people, and we all have interesting things to share. And most of us like to do it.

I did.

After all, more than ten years after that baseball game I still remember that discussion.

Because it was interesting. Because I got to give my opinion on things.

Because it made me feel special.

Get into the habit of asking questions with everyone you meet, and you’ll not only get them to engage with you…you’ll also learn a whole lot of interesting things along the way.

Now, go do good…and do it well.

8 thoughts on “How to Engage Absolutely Anybody

  1. Susan says:

    Such simple and obvious advice but so rarely sincerely done. Thanks for the post!

  2. Once again, Deirdre has a gem to share. With so much going on around me every day, remembering to stop and focus is a wonderful reminder.

  3. Avoiding the obvious question “What do you do?” is something I’m grateful I learned in the 1990s Men’s Movement. Thanks for excellent tips on posing good questions!

  4. Karla Olson says:

    Another great post, Deirdre. This is the key, and so few people realize it. Be sincerely interested (and it is not hard if you are a curious person) and you will reel them in every time.

  5. I appreciate this post more than you can imagine, Deidre. I take that “break” in eye contact extremely personally. As though I’m not enough to keep ’em captive and if I was enough, I’d have their rapt attention 24/7.

    It’s frustrating to turn that inwards, when it a part of everyday conditioning. As with the other commenters, I’m sure I’m guilty of doing it more often than I’d like to admit.

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