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5 Ways to Have More Meaningful Exchanges

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Conversation is the currency of everyday business. Whether you're engaging in small talk before a meeting or providing an in-depth discussion at a networking event, the right conversation at the right time can lead to a fresh idea, a new friendship or a long-lasting business relationship.

Here are five ways to have more meaningful conversations:

1. Think big for small talk.

If you're ever at a loss for words at a party, remember that two of the most popular topics of conversation are food and travel.

Nearly everyone has a favorite restaurant or has traveled or wishes to travel to a specific location. Start with a inviting question that encourages someone to be expansive like "Are you going somewhere exciting during the holidays?" or "Can you recommend a great restaurant in the area?"

Then sit back and listen. Don't be surprised if you discover that you have something in common with the other person.

2. Be an active listener.

The best way to establish communication in most professional and personal situations is by practicing empathic listening, paying attention not only with your ears but with your eyes and heart.

Put yourself in the other person's situation and ask, "How would I feel if this were happening to me?" This is something everyone is capable of but few people go to this level when listening.

3. Share stories.

The most common mistake most executives make is lapsing into business talk too soon. Take time to form a connection that has some substance. The best way to do this is by telling your story or by trying to get others to reveal theirs. And everyone has a story to tell.

Stories are the most basic tool for connecting people to one another. People attend to, remember and are transformed by stories. Many people grow up listening to stories passed from generation to generation by parents or grandparents. Even in the world of business, stories have a unique power to move people's hearts, minds, feet and wallets in the storyteller's intended direction.

4. Avoid dull topics.

If you want to better understand a client, colleague or anyone else, you have to connect at a level beyond the superficial. This means that you must be willing to talk about subjects more meaningful than the weather or traffic (unless, of course, one of those subjects profoundly affects your livelihood).

Some of my favorite questions include "Who inspired you to become an entrepreneur?" and "What do you like best about owning your own company?" Most business owners enjoy talking about their firms, and these kinds of questions make people open up and share their passion.

5. Reach out and talk to strangers.

It's natural to gravitate toward someone who is just like you, but did you know that you do yourself a disservice when you socialize with the same people all the time?

Everyone has seen people engage in a behavior I call "clustering."

This is when people who know one another get into groups and ignore everyone else around them.

But why seek out only those you know or see every day when there are so many new possibilities in the room? Challenge yourself to interact with people you don't know. If you're willing to break out of your comfort zone (or at least stretch it) and initiate a conversation with someone new, you just might expand your sphere of influence and form solid, mutually beneficial business relationships.

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