Several years ago, I attended an awards banquet for engineers. One of the presenters opened with a riddle:

Q: How do you tell an extroverted engineer from an introverted engineer?

A: The extroverted engineer looks at your feet when he’s talking to you.

Now, as Jay Leno used to say, “Don’t write me a letter” about how introversion is not the same as shyness. Still, I believe most of us, introverts or extroverts, bashful or bold, have had occasions to admire those who always say just the right thing, and say it easily and naturally, whether making small talk at a party or inspiring breakthroughs at a negotiation table. They seem to have a natural talent that most of us lack.

But guess what? Those who sound most natural and unrehearsed when saying just the right thing are often those who plan ahead and prepare things to say at the party or the business conference.

The life of the party this evening took a second or two before lunch to call herself to mindfulness. Then, if she ate with coworkers, she took note of topics in their lunch conversation that she might introduce tonight. If she ate alone, she browsed a magazine, again taking note of topics that are interesting, but not controversial or upsetting, to the average person.

While driving to the party, she thought about acquaintances she might meet there and questions she might ask them based on what she knows, or thinks, is going on in their lives.

She didn’t spend a lot of extra time. She would have had lunch anyway, either with her colleagues or with a magazine. All she did was remind herself to listen out, or look out, for interesting topics. She would have spent the same amount of time driving to the party whether she thought about what might be going on with her friends or about what she might have for dinner tomorrow.

Those who feel a bit shy or awkward in social settings can invest in just a little more time to practice aloud, and perhaps even in front of the mirror.

Even when one is headed to the business negotiation, rather than to the party, it helps to have a few small talk topics in mind. These can break the ice at the beginning of the meeting or loosen up things (and people) during breaks.

In addition, as my readers know very well, good negotiators also prepare their business talk, not only what to say, but how to say it. For example, suppose Chris is negotiating to purchase a house. It is now early July. The seller’s asking price is $10,000 over the price paid for the most nearly identical home sold in this neighborhood so far this summer. The school year will start August 15. Chris does not have any school-aged children, and is currently renting on a month-to-month basis. So, while Chris can afford to wait for just the right house, the seller’s negotiation strength lessens with the approach of the school year. The fact that the house is overpriced will add to the decreasing chances of selling as time passes.

In short, the seller is in a weak position, which will likely grow weaker in a matter of weeks it. Steering a person toward consideration of weaknesses in his position is one of the trickiest topics to broach without putting that person off.

Instead of overtly stating the weaknesses he sees in the seller’s position, Chris might prepare questions like, “What standards can we look at for guidance as to the value of this house?” and “As the school year draws closer, how will that affect things?” The use of questions, rather than statements, reduces offensiveness, and I especially recommend practicing them aloud in front of the mirror in this type of situation. Indeed, if the negotiation is particularly important, practicing with a friend or acquaintance playing the role of the other party is also a good investment.[1]

One caveat about preparing questions and phrases for use in negotiation or other persuasive endeavors: don’t lock into them or rehearse them so much that they will pop out of your mouth as soon as they hear a cue from the other person. If you are tempted this way, it helps to prepare several alternative questions or statements for handling each anticipated issue.

And always remember, the phrases you craft are tools, not rules. Be prepared to go with the flow of the conversation.

[1] See Chapter 10 of Bridges to Consensus and my article on “Questions and Personal Examples—a Persuasive Duo” for more on crafting and using open questions.

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