Last week we were having coffee in a Chicago hotel. A burly male guest approached us, introduced himself and with no prelude said "You ever hear about the shootings in Ohio where eight people in the same family were murdered on the same night? That was my family." An uncomfortable silence ensued as we stared at him. What was the right response? What could we possibly say? Truly, his comments were the strangest icebreaker we'd ever heard.

We doubt that you would initiate a conversation like this. But it can be difficult to converse with strangers and sometimes random comments rule. So, with informal conversations, it's fine to stick with safe topics like the weather, or what brings you to whatever city you're in.

However, to have productive conversations in a business setting, tune up your interviewing skills. Ask about what interests you or might be meaningful to the other person. Active listening has been in the business lexicon for years, but active cueing is equally important. Dig deeper into a topic, such as their toughest challenge right now, or a success they're proud of. People are often pleasantly surprised that someone is interested in them and will open up rather quickly. And when they respond in kind, you will have your moment in the spotlight.

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