Dog Walks: The No. 1 Icebreaker Training

Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison on what we can learn from man’s best friend on making that critical first-time connection.

Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry. He is the author of Advance: The Ultimate How-To Guide for Your Career and Lose the Resume, Land the Job. For more information, see

There’s no better magnet for attention than a dog. They trigger immediate emotions and connections—smiles, compliments, and small talk.

But it’s never directed at you. You’re on the wrong end of the leash.

This happened to me just the other day when I took Charlie, our golden retriever, out for a walk. Over and over, I kept hearing the same questions: what’s your name, how old are you, can I pet you. No eye contact with me, never asked my name. I might as well have been invisible. It had me wondering, who was walking whom?

It’s symptomatic of a much bigger problem: people don’t know how to make a first-time connection with others. It’s so easy with a dog—and no pressure with a baby in a stroller, either. They’re happy with everything you say. But when it comes to breaking the ice and starting a two-way conversation with someone they don’t know, many people freeze up, clam up, and back up into a corner.

You don’t need a killer opening line like you’re Chris Rock or Dave Chappelle doing standup. Just go back to the basics—like the guy I met at an event on Saturday evening. He made eye contact, introduced himself, and explained how he was connected to the group. It was so simple, but so refreshing.

Not knowing how to break the ice and start a conversation won’t do you any favors in your next interview, client event, networking, or even with the person who works on a different floor than you. When in doubt, greet everyone like a dog or a baby. “Hi, what’s your name?” is a perfectly acceptable ice breaker—and a lot better than shrinking into silence.

Here’s how to get beyond the discomfort and make a first-time connection.

  • Nobody gets out of sixth grade.  Back when you were eleven or twelve years old, your biggest worries were: Are the other kids going to like me? Will they want to be friends with me? Will they want me on their team?  Now tell me—has anything really changed? Meeting someone new, whether socially or in business, brings up those same fears. The more vulnerable it feels, the more you’ll be tempted to avoid reaching out to someone you don’t know.
  • Start at the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy: Begin with the basics: where did you come from and why are you there. You don’t need some cheesy opener. You’re not hosting a game show—or selling knives at the county fair.
  • Take down your “stop sign.” Years ago, I knew a manager who thought it would be a good idea to let his team know when he was not to be disturbed by posting a huge red stop sign outside his closed office door. What a disaster—people were so offended! The real shocker, though, was the manager assumed people would find it helpful. There are “stop signs” everywhere—the noise-cancelling headphones clamped to your skull or the earbuds blasting music. Maybe that works on an airplane as you try to relax or attempt to sleep. But if you walk around like that—or worse, if you work like that—you are sending the unmistakable message: I can’t hear you, so you don’t exist. This same behavior happens all the time on elevators. People’s first instinct is to push their faces into their smartphones, so they don’t have to acknowledge anyone (including people they see all the time). They’re not fooling anyone since cellphone bars disappear when the doors close. You don’t have to make people uncomfortable by being overly friendly. But there’s nothing wrong with making eye contact and saying hello to someone you recognize.
  • When all else fails… A big topic of conversation when I was growing up in Kansas was the weather. Hot or cold, wet or dry, there was always something to talk about. If you don’t know what to say, weather is a great default. Add your name and you’ve got a conversation.

You don’t need to be a great orator or hold people spellbound with your stories. Just introduce yourself and ask people their names. You can practice the next time you’re out walking your dog, or you pass your neighbors with their pets. All it takes is a few friendly words delivered to both ends of the leash.