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smalltalkI recently met with an engineer who had asked me to coach him on improving his “people skills.”

After being passed over for promotion at his firm several times, he thought he was missing something. A top graduate of one of the best schools in the country, he certainly had plenty of book smarts. But he felt his lack of Social IQ was holding him back, and I couldn’t disagree. “I guess I just don’t come across to people very well,” was his very honest self-assessment.

The ability to meet someone face-to-face, and have it go well, is still a vitally important skill, even in the digital age. All ability to influence, persuade and lead others is entirely contingent upon getting people to connect with you in a real way. Maybe a lucky few are born with this innate ability, but most of us have to work hard to develop it. The good news is that it’s a skill set. And a skill set that anyone, even an introverted engineer, can learn with some practice and a little know-how. Here are some things to keep in mind.

1. Don’t dominate

Back in school we were taught to always stand tall and look ’em in the eye, shoulders back with a good firm handshake. It’s a nice outward display of confidence. But too much, and it can look like you’re trying to muscle or establish dominance over someone. The same goes for any form of intellectual posturing. Observe a real power broker and what you will often see is someone being completely deferential, almost submissive, to the person they are meeting. They step forward, smiling, head slightly bowed. It says, “I am genuinely happy to meet you, and I am honored by your presence.”

Related: Why Women Leaders Need Self-Confidence

2. Keep the ball in the air

If conversation is a social game, then the goal is simply to keep the ball in the air as long as possible. A good analogy is tennis, or maybe improv comedy, where you’re trying to generate a sustained rally. A good rally is one in which everybody has a chance to shine. You won’t do this by pulling out your Pete Sampras overhead smash, or killing it with the one-liner you’ve been saving up all night. Good dialogue requires a delicate give and take, careful listening for cues and knowing whose turn is next. Keep it light, keep it going and keep it fun.

3. Turn it around

I’m sure you’ve had the experience of talking to someone at a party where you walk away thinking “Wow! What a great conversation. That person is amazing.” And later when you reflect on it, you realize that all you did was talk about yourself. Highly skilled social operatives are masters at getting you to talk about yourself, without you even noticing it. It begins with open-ended questions like “Wow, tell me more about that? What’s been your experience with XYZ? Could I ask your advice on…” Asking open-ended questions shows that you respect the other person’s opinion, and by extension, the person.

4. Reveal, but not too much

hillaryclinton2What unites us most as human beings is our vulnerability. This is often viewed as a negative trait, when in fact the opposite is true. Too many people when they first meet someone new feel a need to trumpet their own abilities and achievements. Far more interesting, is the person who can admit a failing or two, and offer you some portal to their interior world. Doesn’t mean you have to air out your dirty laundry in public, only that you should reveal a little of yourself and what makes you human. The great example is Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail some years ago, when a woman asked her about her hair and makeup. It led her to open up about all manner of things she cared deeply about, in a very genuine non-scripted way. The result? Her poll numbers when through the roof, along with her “likability” quotient. We saw that she too “put her pants on one leg at a time.”

5. No “networking”

So you’re having a nice conversation with someone, maybe finding things in common, and then someone plays the “networking” card: “Do you think you could introduce me to so-and-so?” And the whole tenor of the conversation changes. Why? Because you’ve stopped being interested in who that person is, and more interested in what they can do for you. The best way to leave a good impression with someone is to want nothing from them. Maybe instead ask what you can do for them. If you need to ask for something, choose your time and moment carefully. Nobody likes to feel used.

Related: Women and Networking: What You Need to Know

6. Close well

The saying in showbiz is “know when to get offstage.” All conversations and meetings conclude naturally by themselves. The key is in recognizing this, and knowing how to exit gracefully. A compliment and a smile is always a good way to end. And if you’ve enjoyed it, say so: “It was really nice talking to you, I adored our conversation.” Find out if there’s any way to follow up, and if there is, then do it. People rarely remember what you spoke about, but they will remember how you made them feel. So leave them with a good feeling.

Sounds simple, right? I know it’s not. But maybe start small, and see if you can have a good interaction with the next three people you meet. Hint: It starts with asking about them.

Read more career advice from Ann Mehl:

How to Avoid Career Regrets that Will Haunt You
Learning to be Resilient
Small Personal Investments for a Big Payoff
How to Communicate Effectively
10 Tips For Unlocking Your Potential

Image Credits:

Flickr User itupictures

Photographer Frank Pitt

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