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Advice / Job Search / Networking

4 Steps to Surviving an Awkward Networking Conversation

You’re at an office networking event, and a colleague pulls you into a conversation she’s having with someone you don’t know. She introduces you—and then chugs her half-full drink, pretends to recognize someone at the bar, and hightails it away from you, mumbling something about needing to wash her hair.

Her odd behavior can only signify one thing: You’ve just been warm-transferred to a person who’s difficult to talk to. Now you’re on your own with him, and you’re stuck.

Chatting it up with someone you have absolutely nothing in common with can be tough. But no matter how awkward the situation feels, a few go-to moves will help you make conversation with virtually anyone—and then help you get away.

1. Start With Standard Networking Questions

As mundane as it sounds, standard networking questions (What do you do? Where did you work before this? How did you get into this business?) are your best bet for a smooth entrance into the conversation. Seriously, trying something cute—like asking “Would you rather be stuck in a middle seat on an airplane between Snookie and Fran Drescher or Kim Kardashian and Tara Reid?”—will only make the situation worse.

Plus, most people recognize networking questions for what they are—dialogue starters, which should be briefly answered and asked back to you in turn. And since you most likely have your responses to these questions down pat, you can use half your brain energy to talk, the other half to think about what on earth you’re going to ask this person next.

2. Act Very Interested

Once you’ve moved on from introductory statements, it’s time for your next ploy: Act as if you’re incredibly intrigued by whatever your conversation partner is saying. Body language can help here: Frequent head nodding and pensive brow furrowing should do the trick. Showing interest will encourage him to speak more about himself, relieving you of the pesky task of creating appropriate responses or segueing into something relevant. Given the opportunity, most people will go on about themselves for quite a while, extending the conversation well past the duration required for you to make a polite exit.

3. Resist the Urge to Discuss the Weather (and Other Convo Killers)

Certain topics immediately call attention to the beleaguered state of your conversation. Bringing up the weather is like waving a white flag embroidered with the message You are boring, and I’m no prize myself. And other sensitive topics, like politics, religion, and digestion, are sure to steer your conversation straight down a slippery slope.

If you find yourself grasping for your next sentence, focus on the present: The food and drinks being served, the architecture of the space, even the transportation options to arrive and depart. They’re better choices than the weather.

4. Exit Gracefully

Assuming your new networking buddy isn’t an over-talker, ending this conversation should be relatively easy. Mentioning that you need to “make the rounds,” “put in some face time with the boss,” or simply “catch up with a few other folks” are perfectly acceptable ways to move on.

Just remember, no matter how painful the conversation has been, you should still exchange business cards or contact information. He may not be a blast to have drinks with, but he might still be a great professional connection.

These few tricks should help you navigate through any tough conversation and move on to more sincere interactions. That said, if a few minutes into the conversation you discover that your new acquaintance not only has nothing in common with you, but is also drunk, inappropriate, drunk and inappropriate—or has an entire salad stuck in his adult braces—don’t be a hero. Excuse yourself, hide out in the ladies room for a few, and wish for better luck next time.

Photo courtesy of Jodi Womack.