Conversational Ice Breakers

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By Donna Cardillo, RN, MA

If you’ve read my articles or my online column or have ever attended one of my seminars, you know that I’m always touting networking as a must for nurses’ professional success. Hopefully, you’re convinced that networking is important. So you’ve dusted off your business suit, had business cards printed, and are ready to get yourself out there. There’s just one thing that’s worrying you: “What exactly do I say to people once I get there?”

Most of us were raised to not talk to strangers. It’s natural to feel uncomfortable striking up a conversation with someone you don’t know or just going up to people and introducing yourself. There’s actually a style and proven techniques that will enable you to be able to talk to anyone anywhere. Here are some strategies that work.

It’s always intimidating to walk into a professional association meeting by yourself for the first time. Try this next time you do: Go up to the registration desk and say something like “This is my first time here. Is there someone who can introduce me to some members and show me around?” There’s usually a membership person, an ambassador, or a board member who will be happy to do this. Why walk around alone and in the dark when you can make some immediate friends and get in the know by being a little assertive?

It’s great if you can find a friend or colleague to attend events with, but the problem with that is our natural tendency to talk to just that person. One of the great benefits of networking is meeting new people and exchanging information. So even if you attend an event with others, you should still make an effort to meet at least one new person. Overcome the “safe haven” mentality and step out of your comfort zone.

If you ever do find yourself alone at an event with no one to talk to, look for someone who also appears to be alone rather than trying to break into a group discussion. If you use your observational skills, you’ll get a sense of who is open to talking versus those who seem to want to be alone. If you approach someone who won’t make eye contact or smile and seems distracted or disinterested, just move on. You might also approach the food table, if there is one, and say, “This looks good. Do they always put out this kind of spread?”

Complimenting someone on a piece of jewelry or a tie is always a good way to break the ice, even with a complete stranger. Most everyone appreciates a sincere and appropriate compliment, and there is often a story behind a piece of jewelry or a tie — a great vacation they bought it on, a favorite relative who passed it down, a gift someone gave them for a special event; it’s a great conversation starter. But be careful: Being too complimentary about personal items and attributes with members of the opposite sex might be construed as flirting in some cases.

I’ve met some interesting people on airplanes and in the beauty parlor (of all places) by commenting on a book they were reading or carrying. You might say, “I couldn’t help but notice you were reading Toni Morrison’s latest book. How do you like it so far?” Remember that there are opportunities to network virtually everywhere, not just in formal arenas.

When attending a seminar or workshop, lean over during the break and say, “How do you like the program so far?” or “Where did you have to drive from today?” These are both nonthreatening questions and easily answered. It’s often all the impetus needed to start a conversation. Once engaged with the other person, you can then offer a handshake and introduce yourself. Warming up with an icebreaker or two makes self-introduction much less intimidating. Most people appreciate when you make the effort to speak with them. Chances are they’re just as shy as you, so they’re happy you got the ball rolling.

Once you’ve broken the ice, what do you talk about then? It’s always good to focus on the other person. Show interest in them and what they do. It’s said that everyone’s favorite subject to talk about is themselves. Make a few inquiries without getting into a game of 20 questions. For example you might ask a combination of “yes or no” and open-ended questions such as, “Are you a member of this association? For how long? What do like about it?” Be sure to offer some information about yourself, too, without monopolizing the conversation. Networking is a give-and-take situation. It’s only through self-disclosure that you’ll reap the maximum benefit.

Other safe topics of conversation are the weather, current events, sports and entertainment, and industry issues. Topics to avoid include religion, politics, and very controversial subjects. If you’re sitting at a table with others, you might say, “Did anyone see the news story about (fill in the blank)?” Choose a topic in which you’re interested or have some expertise.

Overcoming shyness and your fear of talking to people will probably take a little time. Breaking the ice and making conversation get easier with practice — the more you do it, the better you get at it.Do it frequently, too, so you keep those skills sharp. With a little practice and a concerted effort to be a better conversationalist, you’ll soon be the life of any networking event.

Books Books Books Books

How to Talk to Anyone, Anytime, Anywhere — Larry King

It’s Who You Know: The Magic

Eye to Eye: How People Interact — Peter Marsh

Donna Cardillo, RN, MA, well-known career guru, is Nursing Spectrum’s Dear Donna and author of Your First Year As a Nurse: Making the Transition from Total Novice to Successful Professional.

From: Nursing Spectrum Career Fitness(sm) Online (,
Copyright August, 2002. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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