How to Talk to Strangers and Enjoy It

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A few days ago, I was in Manhattan taking a seminar on screenplay writing. During my time there, I had one night where I didn’t have any plans or commitments.

As an experiment, I invited a few dozen CIBs, 1Y, 2Y to a last-minute, impromptu Q & A session in the lobby of my hotel.

(The crowd got so big that we ended up taking over most of the lobby and they kicked us out! My apologies to anyone who came at the end of our scheduled time, as we had by then moved to a conference room. I was hoping 5 people would show up, but when close to 30 did, the hotel kicked us out. Lesson learned.)

During this informal “shop talk” a 1Y from McK asked me about how one can be more comfortable meeting strangers (e.g., new clients).

At the time, I gave what ended up being a partial answer. I was planning to send a revised answer to everyone who attended in person.

Instead, I thought I’d provide the full answer here as I actually get asked this question a lot. Usually the question is asked in the context of networking at information sessions or connecting with people in your network to secure an interview (for lateral hires, non target school hires, etc.…)

Before I provide several mindset shifts and techniques that I’ve found helpful, it’s useful to understand something fundamental about the strategy consulting industry.

The type of people who have the analytical skills to do consulting, tend to be introverted and unaccustomed to being around other people constantly in their work lives.

(If I had to guess, I’d say that at McKinsey 65%–75% of the consulting staff were introverts—albeit introverts with at least functional people skills. The remainder were extroverts with strong analytical skills. I’m oversimplifying here, but hopefully you get the idea.)

So here are some short, medium, and long-term solutions for how to improve your people skills—in particular the ability to meet new people for the first time, and maybe even enjoy it.

SHORT-TERM

1) GET THEM TALKING ABOUT THEMSELVES. When you meet someone for the first time, hands down the easiest thing you can do is ask them about themselves.

This is a very popular topic!

It is never an offensive topic. People always have something to say about themselves.

One of the tricks is to ask an OPEN question.

A closed question is a question that can be answered in a word or two. For example, you might ask, “How long have you worked here?” The other person can say “2 years” or shut up. Now the burden is on you to keep the conversation going.

There are many problems with asking closed questions.

First, because they can be answered so quickly, you usually have to ask many closed questions to fill the time.

Second, this is exhausting work for you.

Third, a series of closed question is NOT a conversation, it is an INTERROGATION.

Q: How long have you worked here?
A: 2 years

Q: What is your role at McKinsey?
A: I’m an engagement manager

Q: Did you graduate from XYZ school too?
A: No

Q: Do you know what the campus recruiting schedule is for this year?
A: No

You see how it feels like an interrogation.

The art of having a conversation, especially a conversation where you don’t have to work hard, is to ask OPEN questions—questions that require a verbal “essay” to answer.

For CEOs, I usually ask, “So how did you get started in XYZ field?” I’ve never gotten anything shorter than a 10-minute answer. I’ve even gotten 30-minute answers.

This is a good 80/20 rule of thumb for an introvert: Ask one question and get 10–30 minutes of conversation out of it.

When I used to do informational interviews for networking purposes, I’d ask the same question. When I was in college, I asked a famous venture capitalist that question at his desk and spent 45 minutes listening to the answer. I’ve asked senior executives at Wells Fargo and several investment bankers that same question. They all talk about it for 10–15 minutes or more.

It is a good question. So think of a few open-ended questions, and then ask them.

2) LISTEN DEEPLY. You would be surprised how few people ACTUALLY listen deeply to the other person. Most of the time when the other person is talking, we are putting all of our energy into deciding what we are going to say next.

Too often we’re being polite: we act as though we’re listening, when we’re really just waiting for them to stop talking so we can say whatever we were planning to say (regardless of what the other person just said!)

When you ask open question, they are going to give you a long and detailed answer. All you have to do then is ACTUALLY LISTEN to what the other person is saying. Then when you hear something interesting, make a comment about your own experience or ask a more detailed question about that topic.

You could say something like, “Wow. Really? What was that like?”

For example, I once had a lunch meeting with a prospective client—an owner of a small business, a market leader in a tiny niche. Our one-hour scheduled lunch turned into a FOUR hour conversation. It was just an interesting conversation.

I guess we started sharing more personal details (which tends to happen if you are being a good listener) during the conversation. I had mentioned that there was a brief period in my entrepreneurial career where I was selling a product I wasn’t proud of and was actually embarrassed to be associated with it, and it really sucked my soul dry.

I was explaining how it was a mistake, but I learned a lot from it. It’s also the reason why I now never attach my name to something unless it’s an exceptional product or service.

Well, I think I struck a chord at this point, because she said, “I know exactly how you feel. I used to be a stripper in Las Vegas.”

(I SO did not expect that comment!)

So what did I say?

Yup…

“Wow. Really? What was THAT like?”

And then off she went for another 20 minutes.

You see, when you ask an open question, the other person will tell you all kinds of stuff. Then all you have to do is listen deeply, look for something interesting and either comment on that or ask a clarifying question.

I’ve done this with bus drivers, waitresses, CEOs, parents—pretty much anybody.

The thing is, EVERYBODY is INTERESTING.

Usually most conversations stay at a superficial level, so a lot of the interesting stuff doesn’t come out. But, if you ask people open questions, listen deeply and show you are interested in hearing more, they will share more and more.

Also, this kind of interaction very much feels like a conversation.

If you show more interest in someone, they will often take a deeper interest in you. It’s a natural human instinct to reciprocate, so the more you hear them out, the more they want to hear you out. The “secret” is to hear them out FIRST.

3) TURN OFF THE INNER VOICE. When you’re at a networking or social function, sometimes instead of engaging with other people you end up having a conversation with your “inner voice.”

The conversation with your inner voice sounds something like this:

“I hope nobody notices I’m not talking to anyone. This is not going well.”

“Geez, I wish someone would come up and talk to me.”

“When does this thing end? Is my hair okay? Did I spill something on my shirt? Should I check my mobile phone to look like I’m busy? It’s better than just standing here with nothing to do.”

“Oh shoot, my drink is almost all gone. Maybe I should get another. But I don’t actually want one. But what do I do with my hands? I need to do something. I can’t just stand here.”

“Am I loser? No, I am not a loser. Then why do I feel like a loser?”

This is what the inner voice conversation sounds like. I know this because this is what I used to say to myself at cocktail parties, information sessions, and networking events—and from time to time still do.

When I was younger, when I was having conversations with other people, I would simultaneously have a conversation with my inner voice. The problem with this approach is I wasn’t able to listen deeply to the other person because I was distracted by also listening to myself.

Invariably, the other person would lose interest in the conversation because they didn’t like competing with the conversation going on in my head.

The solution is to turn off (or at least turn down) the volume on your inner voice, especially when you’re in the middle of a conversation with another person. Just pay attention to them.

4) ASSUME THE OTHER PERSON IS MORE NERVOUS THAN YOU. The majority of people I know feel at least a little awkward meeting new people (though some people are better at hiding it than others). Most people also tend to assume that everyone else is more socially comfortable than they are.

So what happens is, you have all these people standing in a room. And instead of talking to each other, they talk to themselves inside their own heads.

This ends up becoming a self-reinforcing cycle.

The way to break this cycle is to assume everyone else is more nervous or feels more awkward than you.

Then make it your job to help others feel comfortable by reaching out and engaging them. Even if they are not great conversationalists, that’s okay. Just ask them about themselves!

Then listen deeply, keep your inner voice quiet, and they will respond to you.

MEDIUM-TERM

5) GET MORE LOW-STAKES PRACTICE. If your career path has involved working on your own more than working with other people, consider getting more opportunities to practice your interpersonal skills.

The main reason my people skills were functional when I was recruiting was because I happened to do a number of extracurricular activities in high school and college that involved working with other people.

I also took two different sales jobs while in school: one selling Yellow Pages advertising face-to-face, and the other making cold calls for Merrill Lynch. At best, I was pretty mediocre at both of those jobs despite working really hard at them.

Every little bit of interpersonal interaction helps improve those skills. If you can, join groups, clubs, meetups, Toastmasters or industry associations so you have plenty of opportunities to practice.

If you’re on campus, go to information sessions of firms that aren’t in your top 10 list. Then go practice interacting with the people there.

The key is to use the skills in an environment where there’s no downside to doing it poorly.

LONG-TERM

6) BECOME COMFORTABLE WITH YOURSELF. It’s my theory that most social awkwardness and anxiety comes from some combination of:

a) being intimidated by the other person and putting them on a pedestal;

b) being secretly afraid the other person will see you and somehow find you lacking; or

c) being uncomfortable with being yourself.

The root cause of these three dynamics is low or diminished self-esteem. One trademark of low self esteem is the presumption that one is somehow inferior to others or, on the flip side, presuming most people are better than you.

Another way low self esteem expresses itself is by acting superior to other people. You might notice this as arrogance. When you’re right and have high self esteem, there is no need to convince others you’re right. It’s enough simply to know you are right and they are wrong.

But if you’re right and have low self esteem, the insecurity runs so deep that being right isn’t enough. There’s a need to prove others wrong, to make them see that you’re right and they’re wrong. It is this public perception of superiority that helps this kind of person feel better.

(The problem, of course, is that this comes at the expenses of others feeling worse about themselves, which makes them unwilling to work with or be near you)

This behavior is a severe over-compensation for low self esteem. Basically these kinds of people don’t feel good about themselves and don’t want anyone to discover this “fact”, so they act arrogant and cocky, with a lot of (false) bravado to hide their insecurity.

People who over compensate by conveying superiority are people who place themselves in a “One Up” position.

And when someone tends to automatically assume they are in some way “less than” other people, that’s a person who places himself in a “One Down” position.

Both of these extremes are enormous obstacles to being comfortable with yourself. The premise of both points of view is that “something is wrong with me.”

The One Down person tries to “hide,” hoping nobody will notice and see these self-perceived flaws. The One Up person tries to act bigger than they are and hide behind a mask of superiority.

In the general population, I’d say 75% of people are either One Up or One Down. Within McKinsey, its a fairly open secret that 80%+ of McK consultants are One Down-type people—myself included.

Here’s why.

While there are many ways One Down people cope (e.g., addictions, self-medicating, abusing others), one of the more socially acceptable ways is to be addicted to work and, as a byproduct, achieve extraordinary career success.

There’s nothing wrong with hard work, unless you’re doing it is an addiction because not working (and therefore saying something about you and your worth) scares you to death.

This is not to say everyone who is successful is doing it for these reasons.

But among this group, in which I include myself, the implicit rationale is, “If I just get X (an MBB offer, a Harvard degree, a 2nd Harvard degree, a CEO position, etc…) then everyone will congratulate me, treat me like I’m special, and I’ll feel better about myself.”

(I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it doesn’t work. There’s a temporary high from a new career achievement, but it fades within a few months. I know this because it describes most of my life. More on this later.)

Even if you are not a One Up or One Down person, I believe there’s a 100% chance this dynamic impacts the people that you interact with every day, including clients, co-workers, family members, and friends.

If you want to develop exceptional people skills, you absolutely, positively have to understand how this dynamic works.

You need to learn to recognize it in yourself, recognize it in others, and know how to work with yourself and others, given their tendencies.

For example, if you have a client that has a tendency to go “one up,” he will often resist any idea that’s not his own. If you’ve been in the corporate environment, particularly in the US, you may have heard of the acronym: NIH (Not Invented Here).

A One Up person does not like any ideas that were Not Invented Here.

The key to winning over a One Up client is to let your idea be his idea. He is not threatened by “his” ideas. But he is threatened by an outside idea (that he did not think of himself), especially if it’s a good idea. It is perceived as proof that he wasn’t adequate to the task at hand.

By the way, One Up people are not inherently bad. One of my very good friends from high school went “one up” all the time. All it says is he’s just afraid people will think he’s not good enough. It’s a fear reaction.

When you understand the humanity behind such outwardly aggressive behavior, you learn to feel compassion for the other person. They will detect this and allow you to develop a closer relationship with them because somehow you “get” them.

Once you understand the psychology of the people around you, you begin to handle things differently. The above example is just one of dozens of scenarios that you’d handle differently once you understand people better.

This is a very big topic that’s impossible to cover in a single article. While I have a deep personal interest in this topic, I recognize not everyone else does.

If you’d like to learn more about concepts, ideas and tools for dealing with what I call “being human” problems, just fill out the form below:

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22 comments… add one
  • Michael Moshiri Apr 15, 2013, 4:48 pm

    Excellent post Victor!

    I think your point #2 is one of the most powerful pieces of advice anyone can take away from this article. Listening intently and intensely not only helps you become a better conversationalist, it also allows you to learn more about the person you’re conversing with… to help you decide whether this is a person you really -want to- associate with. After all, people do judge us by the company we keep.

    I would also add to the following to the “one-up/one-down” concept: paying close attention to the “6 Human Needs” will go a long way in helping you connect with anyone.

    The concept of the 6 Human Needs was popularized by the peak performance guru Anthony Robbins back in the 1990s, and essentially says that all humans, everywhere, have 6 basic human needs they must (and do) fulfill — no matter what: love/connection, significance, certainty, variety/uncertainty, growth, contribution. (Here’s a TED Talk he gave on the topic http://on.ted.com/bW8j)

    If you can find out which of these needs are the primary ones for everyone you meet, it gives you the power to connect with them in ways that simple open-ended questions cannot: by helping them meet their primary need.

    For instance, most top-level executives are interested in power, position, respect — all pointing to “significance” as their primary (or secondary) need. While listening intently, if you could identify accomplishments that are truly outstanding and highlight those (and perhaps pay a justified complement), you will connect with that person in ways that go beyond just listening.

    • Victor Cheng May 29, 2013, 2:06 pm

      Michael,

      That’s a great point. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a useful filter to see people through as a means to understanding what class of issues are important to them. For greatest impact, I think it’s useful to clarify what specifically within that particular level of needs is most useful. So if I am in survival mode, do I value food or shelter more? It’s useful to know.

      Victor

  • Thijs Apr 23, 2013, 4:21 pm

    Thank you for this post, Victor!

    Definitely recognizing it, and indeed training does help a lot in conquering one’s fears. Your concept of ‘one up/down’ is new to me, looking forward to implementing it in my interactions.

  • Ka May 16, 2013, 12:08 pm

    Nice Post, Victor.
    I know of a few books which cover most of the above points in chapters and in hundreds of pages but your article is a nice summation, and provides in short, a good place for people to start working on …

  • Carlos May 27, 2013, 10:28 am

    Hi Victor!

    This is indeed a grat article for giving tools to people with no so great personal skills (like this humble student of yours) but along my reading of this i just keep thinking of applying this for networking with human resources people for target consulting firms.

    Like you have recommended before, the process of getting an offer involves many fronts such as networking, an example of this would be inviting people to lunch and gaining adepts to one’s applicattion. And here’s where my questions to you comes: How to approach these complete strangers and inviting them to lunch whithout seeming like a stalker? Which people should we target (i.e. HR people, consultants, project leaders)??

    Thank you very much for the work you’re doing with this website, the impact on the lives of other people is enormous.

    Carlos

    • Victor Cheng May 29, 2013, 2:03 pm

      Carlos,

      I would meet up with working consultants at these firms, invite them to coffee or lunch or for a brief Q&A phone call. Ask them for an informational interview where you ask them questions about their experiences in consulting, and that firm, much like a jounrnalist would for research purposes.

      At the end, ask them if they have any tips for how to apply without your application getting lost in the shuffle of paperwork. This gives them the opportunity to volunteer to take your resume and forward to the recruiting department FROM THEM. If the person likes you, they might endorse the resume as well. By asking without really asking, you allow them to suggest applying the regular way (which is a polite way of them declining to stake their personal reputation on your candidacy) without making it feel like an awkward confrontation or rejection.

      You realistically need to do this 5 – 15 times to get a “real” interview. The process works, but it is time consuming, doesn’t work every single attempt. But the process is sound.

      Victor

  • Elena Jul 10, 2013, 2:16 pm

    thank you, Viktor, for sharing this, i think this is a skill that you can learn all your life at whatever stage in it you are.
    For me the hardest thing is to start a conversation and your OPEN question advice is a very powerful tool! I agree that most of time we are listening to people and thinking what do we say instead of really being engaged into a conversation, why is it so? I don’t know but clearly something to change and yes, everybody is interesting 🙂

    • Victor Cheng Jul 24, 2013, 2:08 pm

      Elena,

      It takes a lot of energy to be deliberately emotionally present with another person. Despite trying a lot, I don’t do it all the time — and the other person can tell when I am or am not. The key is to focus on them, not on the self dialog voice in one’s head.

      -Victor

  • Sai B. Jul 22, 2013, 3:38 pm

    Hi Victor,

    If we live in an area where Mckinsy, or any of the major consulting firms are less prevalent how do we go through with networking? Atlanta, which is three hours away, is the location that is closest to me so I’m somewhat puzzled on how to sit down and network when there won’t be many opportunities. Also something you didn’t mention, how do you work on long term networking, say over multiple years or maybe developing a contact into a mentor?

    Thanks,
    Sai B

    • Victor Cheng Jul 25, 2013, 2:13 am

      Hi Sai,

      The concept of networking is as follows. Assume the average person knows 300 people. Those people in turn know 300 people. That means if you ask the 300 people you know if they know anyone who either works in management consulting or might know of someone who works in consulting, that’s a pool of 90,000 people.

      The bet is that at least some of those people live in a major city somewhere in the world. Networking is about making steps closer to your goal… but usually it isn’t a single step.

      I’m in the process of putting together a manual on how to network both for short term job interviews and as a long term career strategy. To be notified when these new materials become available, just visit:

      http://www.caseinterview.com/networking

      -Victor

  • Amy Sep 2, 2013, 9:40 pm

    Hi Victor,

    This is a general comment about one way I think you can improve the comment section. Some of the articles you wrote have 50+ comments and questions and you only answer a few that you think other people will be interested in knowing. It would be nice to have a voting system, similar to what Reddit or Stack Overflow uses, that allows readers to vote the comment/questions that they think are most relevant to them, so that it’s easier for you to accurately find those questions!

  • Stephanie Dec 2, 2013, 8:45 pm

    Hi Victor,

    It is so great to read your article. This is something that have been bothering me for the rest of my life and I don’t even know how to overcome it. I have been practicing some of short-term advice you mentioned in this article and I have achieved fair progress so far. However, I am having so much trouble in the long term advice #6. I am the one down person you mentioned in the article and I can’t become comfortable with myself. I am wondering if you can offer some books/techniques to read in improving self-esteem and how should I overcome it.

    • Victor Cheng Dec 4, 2013, 8:21 pm

      Stephanie,

      Your relatively simple question requires a huge answer and may be the subject of several articles someday. A few books will help with self esteem including: Emotional Intimacy by Pia Melody, The Six Pillars of Self Esteem by Nathaniel Brandon, and the audio recordings titled The Power of Vulnerability: Teachings on Authenticity, Connection, and Courage by Brene Brown.

      These are all starting points. Unlike learning math, science or language which requires reading and studying to translate into knowledge, self esteem is different. You can intellectually learn about self esteem easily enough. However, FEELING esteem for yourself is a different matter entirely.

      The first and most important step is self awareness of a few things:

      1) Recognizing when your feelings (and the actions you take based on your feelings) are being motivated by OTHER esteem rather than self esteem.

      2) Recognizing WHY in your personal life history you adopted other esteem as opposed to self esteem.

      3) Building self esteem

      The books above can help with #1 and #2 and to some extent #3. The rest of #3 is challenging to do on your own. But hopefully the above resources will get you started in the right direction.

      -Victor

      • Krzysztof Feb 22, 2014, 7:35 pm

        Stephanie, Victor,

        I consider ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ another powerful book which will help to increase self-worth and security. Rationale:
        1) Reaches deep to the roots (i.e. character ethic vs. quick fix, fragile personality ethic);
        2) Teaches how to achieve self-mastery (independence);
        3) Teaches how to cooperate with others (interdependence).
        For me that book was a game changer and I believe it can help others as well to become comfortable with themselves.

        Krzysztof

  • M Mar 4, 2014, 1:01 am

    This is a wonderful post, Victor. Very very very insightful and humbling. Thank you.

  • Monica Aug 25, 2014, 7:10 am

    Victor

    Thank you so much for such an insightful and entertaining post.

    What I love most about it is that you talked about what you are already practising. Every time I read your newsletter I can hear your voice in my head speaking. Your writing style is so engaging, after a few months of subscribing to your newsletters and posts, I feel like we have been friends for years 🙂

    I am not one easily swayed by all this self-help motivational speeches that are so abundantly available today, but I always find that when I read your posts it really just feels like I’m in a conversation with you.

    It is so beautiful that you are thriving so much in your area of grace. I wish you all the success and happiness in the world.

    Thank you so much for your work.

    Many blessings
    Monica 🙂

    • Victor Cheng Aug 26, 2014, 11:16 am

      Monica,

      You are quite welcome and thank you for your very generous words.

      Victor

  • Pras Feb 9, 2015, 8:56 pm

    Hi Victor,
    Just terrific. You have said it in few paragraphs where tons of books are written.
    I have a very typical problem at hand. I am a good opener with complete strangers. I am usually good at steps 1 and 2. But I start getting problem when I meet that person often, as I run out of conversational topics. On self analysis I have found that I am usually ‘One Down’ person and get awed by the knowledge with the new people I meet.
    I guess that’s my personal problem and have to work on that topic to not get low on my confidence level.
    I have been following everything that you say here and would like to thank you for all the advice.
    Many Thanks,
    Pras

    • Victor Cheng Feb 9, 2015, 11:50 pm

      Pras,

      Just a reminder people are people period. The most ironic is sometimes I have felt one down around someone else only to later discover they were feeling one down around me too! So essentially we are both equally one down, and heck we might as well just admit we are both human beings — flaws and all — and just interact from one human being to another.

      In general, focus on listening to the other person. If you self talk gets too noisy, it distracts you from paying attention to the other person and what they’re saying.

      Sometimes conversations do come to a natural end. In those times, it’s perfectly find to acknowledge that in a social setting, say it’s been great meeting you / talking to you, I will hopefully see you again.

      Or if it’s a situation where it’s not natural to walk away, then it’s perfectly fine to say, hmm what else can we talk about. Any suggestions?

      In general, I find if you turn down the volume on the self talk, you’ll notice things in what the other person is saying that you would otherwise miss. Some people are extremely shy and quiet. If you ask them a question, they give you a one word or one sentence answer, and they don’t ask you any questions. In those cases, it’s a bit hard to carry an entire conversation by yourself.

      If that’s the case recognize there’s a limit to how much you can carry a conversation on your own. I find my most enjoyable conversations are with people who are doing with me what I am doing with them — listening carefully, asking follow up questions or making follow up comments directly related to what they’re saying. Those are the best because it’s a tennis match, where they lead the conversation then I do, and there’s always some new twist to the conversation that I didn’t expect which makes the conversation fun and interesting.

      -Victor

  • Pras Feb 11, 2015, 7:12 pm

    You got me right…..I think I do lot of self talking. Well in a way to motivate myself.
    regards,
    pras

  • Amarachi May 11, 2015, 10:51 am

    Hi Victor,

    This is such a great post. You said it all. I’m looking forward to practicing these tips. I would also like to use this medium to say Thank You for your emails, they have been really helpful.

    Thank you again.
    Amarachi

  • Kim Sep 2, 2015, 12:03 pm

    Hi Victor,

    Excellent write-up. Found the tip on asking open questions especially helpful. I’ve generally done my best to listen to the other party, since I’d really prefer not to have to talk too much, but I sometimes still get bored however hard I try to listen (rather suspect I belong to the one-up category), depending on whom I’m talking to. But maybe if I come up with a good list of open questions, there’ll be a higher chance of not retreating into my glazed not-quite-there look.

    I got a lot more out of this article than from similar videos on “how to make small talk”, so I really have no idea why you say people get the least out of the articles you write, as opposed to the audio or real life sessions (from your interview with Roger Love, although no idea how you measured the retention rate of your audience in each medium). I’d say that it’s because I’m more of a visual (text) learner, just that TED has debunked the various learning styles as a myth.

    Will continue to crawl through the other sections of your site, seems useful regardless of whether I’m called up for an interview.

    Kim

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