We’ve all been there: You find yourself alone with a person you don’t know very well, you can’t think of anything to say and the conversation turns to silence. Awkward. Whether you’re cold-calling someone for work or going on a first date, you can use the thread theory to open a dialogue — and never run out of things to say.
Imagine that each person is walking around carrying a big knotted ball of string. All of these strings are their thoughts, ideas, interests and opinions. At the start of every new interaction, try to tease out some of other person’s thought-strings. The more threads you discover you have in common, the more you’ll be able to chat about.
Find the thread
There are three main categories of commonalities that you can pull from at any time.
People: Mutual contacts are a great, easy way to start chatting. You can also liven up the conversation in a lull by searching for mutual friends. People love talking about other people.
Context: Think you don’t have anything in common? Well, you’ve both found yourselves in the same place. All you have to do is ask, “What brings you here today?” to get the ball rolling.
Interests: Shared interests introduce a topic you both know a lot about, which is ripe territory for great stories and natural conversation.
If someone says, “Oh, I don’t know her,” or “Nope, never been here before,” don’t panic. Use that as an opener. You can say, “Yeah, it is a pretty big school. I think she studied political science. What did you study?” or, “Me neither! Do you have any favorite local watering holes?” Every answer you hear puts you one more step deeper in conversation.
Be on the lookout for physical similarities, too. For example, if you notice a woman’s University of Southern California keychain, you can say, “Go Trojans!” Or if she arrives in a car you admire, you can comment, “I was thinking about buying that car, how do you like it?” It can even be as simple as noticing what she’s drinking: “The red wine isn’t bad, huh?”
Follow the thread
The thread theory isn’t about simply pointing out similarities; it’s about exploring them. When you find a commonality, don’t let it pass by — ask the other person why your shared hobby is important to him, how he got started in the business you both work in or how he met that mutual friend.
Let’s say you find out the man you’re chatting with at your sister’s wedding is also an entrepreneur. If you follow that thread, you get a much deeper interaction:
You: Why did you decide to become an entrepreneur?
Him: I always wanted to start my own business.
You: Interesting. Why did that appeal to you?
Him: I really wanted flexibility and freedom in work hours, and I knew I could never get that with a boss.
You: I feel the same way. Why were you looking for more flexibility?
Him: Oh, I love to travel, so I wanted to be able to work from anywhere.
You: That’s wonderful — I’m also a huge traveler, I just came back from Chile. Why do you love to travel?
Him: I’ve been dying to go to Chile! You know, I love traveling because I think it’s so important to get out of your comfort zone and experience different cultures.
You: That’s so true. I’ve met the most interesting people on my travels. Why do you think it’s so important to get out of comfort zones?
Him: Hmmm, good question. I’m my happiest when I’m trying new things, seeing new things, experiencing new things. How about you? Where do you think happiness comes from?
This is what can happen you ask, “Why?” That simple question gets you beyond small talk into an exploration of motivations, dreams and interests — and each time you ask it, you discover more threads.
The last step of the thread theory is optional and reserved only for special interactions. When you’re having a really great discussion and clicking with someone, you can take your connection to the next level by using your common threads to create a tie.
When you offer help, support or advice to someone new, you create a deeper bond. Most of the time, opportunities to assist others come up organically — you hear someone has a need and know you can help. Here are some examples:
- Since you’re new in town, I can send you a list of my favorite local restaurants.
- I’m sure I know someone in that industry — connect with me on LinkedIn, and I’ll introduce you.
If nothing specific comes up during a conversation, you can extend an open offer. I typically end my best encounters with a single question: Can I help you with anything? Not only does asking the question give me a chance to create a tie, but it also teaches me something new about the person.
Adapted from CAPTIVATE: The Science of Succeeding with People by Vanessa Van Edwards, with permission from Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Vanessa Van Edwards, 2017.