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Make your flying the skies more friendly by making a human connection

There are enough challenges being a road warrior, so adding networking to your flight plan may seem like one activity too many while getting from A to B. As you prepare for takeoff, you wonder, should you say something to the person sharing the armrest?

The answer is yes, for a couple of reasons. First, acknowledging the person next to you is simply a polite thing to do. Second, an amazing connection can happen. For example, when a senior businesswoman we know began a conversation with the person in the seat next to her, it was the start of a business relationship. That discussion resulted in her being invited to join the board of her seatmate’s multinational oil and gas company. She eventually became the chair.

An engineering graduate on a vacation trip to India, before beginning his job search in the U.S., began chatting with the person sitting next to him. That man turned out to be an Indian executive at an engineering firm who was on his way home after a business trip abroad. Not only did this newly minted engineer get a job referral with the firm’s North American enterprise, but this executive seatmate took the graduate to meet the family and gave him a tour around India.

So while you might be tempted to sit down, put on your headphones and ignore the person next to you, don’t. Here are seven simple ways to engage with that fellow traveller while respecting their space and giving yourself alone time to watch a movie or do some work.

1. Acknowledge other humans you’ll be in close contact with for hours
Say hello when you sit down. If you don’t, the longer you sit in silence, the harder it will be to say something.

2. Figure out if your seatmate is up for some small talk
If the person next to you puts on headphones, attempting a conversation may not be possible, but if you have a seatmate whose ears aren’t covered or eyes aren’t closed, perhaps ask a few questions or make a comment when you sit down. “Full flight.” “Nice to see the flight is leaving on time.” “I can’t believe the delay, are you making a connection?”

3. Do this with an implied time constraint
Avoid a pre-apology: “I don’t plan to talk to you throughout the flight, so don’t worry.” Instead, as you ask a question, start pulling out your computer, book or iPad so they know you’re not going to chat throughout the flight.

4. Navigate the weird private space in an area with no space
Your elbows are touching and you can see the other person’s pores, but everyone tries to pretend they can’t see each other's computer screen. Although it’s bad form to comment on something on their screen, you can speak up if they’re reading a hard copy of a book. Ask if they are enjoying it, particularly if you are thinking about reading it. Most people are happy to give their book review.

5. Avoid class distinctions
As you sit down in your seat, resist the temptation to judge the person sitting next to you. The same goes for the cabin class. “We’re in economy…” You just never know who could be sitting next to you. Not all the interesting people sit at the front of the plane to say the least!

6. Connect at the end of the flight
If you tried to engage in a little conversation with the person next to you but it’s been a no go, there may be one last chance to chat. As the flight is descending and people are required to pack up their electronics, that’s when you might ask a few questions. “Are you on your way home?” If you’re going to that person’s city for business, it might be an opportunity to ask them for some advice. It could be a recommendation for a great sushi restaurant. If they look like a runner or gym type, you might ask them about scenic places to go for run or walk in the city.

7. Introduce yourself and perhaps exchange cards
Another awkward flying situation is this: you’ve had an interesting or meaningful conversation with someone during the flight but never learned their name. End the flight with a comment like “It’s really been enjoyable talking with you, and I’m Gayle. I probably should have mentioned that earlier.” This sometimes opens the door to exchanging business cards. If the connection has potential, be bold and ask to exchange cards.

Gayle Hallgren-Rezac, Judy Thomson and Darcy Rezac, principals of Shepa Learning Company, are keynote speakers and authors of Work the Pond! Use the Power of Positive Networking to Leap Forward in Work and Life (Penguin/Prentice Hall). They teach the skills of networking and communication to corporate clients, universities and business associations. Please sign up for their free weekly networking tipit’s always under 200 words.