Thanks Jeffrey Mitchell for being the impetus for this two-part article on how to join a conversation politely that is continued on my blog,
Jeffrey, admissions advisor at DeVry University’s Keller Graduate School of Management and a loyal sponsor of my Greater Chicago Networking Extravaganza, posted his article, “What are the most annoying things people can do at networking events?” on my Greater Chicago Networking LinkedIn Group.
As people responded with their irritations, variations of one came to the forefront:
• Someone joins a conversation when you are speaking with one other person and directs her/his attention only to that person or joins a group already engaged and tries to take over the conversation
… which led Jeff to ask my opinion about how to join a conversation politely.
Here it is!
The number one rule is to observe people’s body language, particularly the way they are standing. If two people are facing each other and forming a rectangle, they have “closed off” and are sending you a “do not disturb” message. It’s as powerful as if they had posted a sign. They have either consciously or unconsciously closed the space between them as they became more and more involved in conversation. Even if you were to stand next to them, they probably would not acknowledge you. You have to wait until they open the box and let you in.

On the other hand, when people have their feet pointed outward like two sides of an incomplete triangle, they are much more open to your joining them. It is easy to make eye contact if you are walking past or standing nearby. You will feel even more welcome if one of them extends an invitation through a smile, nod or a pause in conversation. (The same thing applies when you approach someone who is alone … a pleasant smile is inviting, broken eye contact means “move on.”)

When to speak
Even if you have been invited in with a smile, you must wait to speak until someone acknowledges you or there is a lull in the conversation. Think of it this way: you are the guest and need to wait to be included.

A polite thing is for someone to offer you her/his hand, which gives you a chance to introduce yourself or reconnect if you already know the person(s). Do not exchange business cards at this point as your goal is to join the ongoing conversation … not change the emphasis to you.

If the people are engrossed in the conversation they were having, they probably will continue. Wait until you have something to offer like additional information that will benefit others. Again, it is not about you so refrain from:

• “When that happened to me, here’s what I did.” (Two references to you, none to the other people)
• “I’m a business coach. Here’s what I can do for you.”

If you know one of the people
When you join a conversation between two people, and you already know one of them, avoid focusing your words and stance on that person. Make eye contact equally, and speak with both of them. You are most likely to fall into this trap if the person is a friend you haven’t seen for a while and you enjoy her/his company.

This happens a lot when you belong to an organization that has monthly or bimonthly meetings, and you don’t see the members in between. Guests so often feel left out when they are talking with a member and another joins them … and it becomes old home week for the members. That’s why assigned greeters play such a vital role.
How to Leave
When speaking one-on-one with someone, it is advisable to prepare to move on after 10 minutes or so. Networking is planting seeds, not harvesting … that’s sales. It is far wiser to end a conversation when you want to move on than it is to turn your body from the other person, scan the room or look at your watch. An easy time to leave is after another person joins the two of you, and introductions and a few initial remarks have been made.

Author's Bio: 

Lillian Bjorseth helps you build a new kind of wealth – social capital – by improving your networking and communication skills. She’s a highly sought after international speaker, trainer, coach and author whom the Chicago Tribune calls a “networking expert” and the Association Forum of Chicagoland dubs “the business networking authority.”