How Are You At Striking Up A Conversation With Strangers? * Sonia Holt

How Are You At Striking Up A Conversation With Strangers?

I read an article in Entrepreneur Magazine by Joe Keohane, author of The Power of Strangers, The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World about how connecting with strangers can not only lead to meeting some interesting people but can have a positive outcome for entrepreneurs.

Now, I admit there have been times in the past when a stranger would strike up a conversation with me and I would wonder why… what’s their agenda?  So logically, it could be one of the reasons I’ve always shied away from striking up a conversation with someone I don’t know.

Keohane states “I have seen firsthand how beneficial it is for business people to hone those social skills.” He goes on to says he’s spoken with professors who lament about the fact that students struggle to make chance social connections that could serve them well once they’re out there in the real world starting their careers.

Much of the article refers to a course he attended which is an immersive workshop aimed at learning how to have a meaningful conversation with strangers.  The program is taught by Georgie Nightingall, founder of Trigger Conversations.

Here are some points made in the article I found interesting:

Small Talk

Many of us find small talk boring and it can be.  According to Nightingall, it’s because we don’t understand what it’s for.  It’s not the conversation in and of itself, but more as an opener for a better conversation.  It’s how we get comfortable around one another until we find something we really want to talk about.

So, the next time someone asks you “What do you do?” they’re really trying to get to what you and they should talk about.

Kate Fox, a social anthropologist, who studied the desire for folks in England to speak about the weather, maintains that the weather isn’t the point… it’s a greeting ritual.  (By the way, I think talking about the weather isn’t unique to England; it’s pretty much the same everywhere.)

She states rather than the content,  the point is familiarity, connection, and reassurance.  Once that’s in place a real conversation can begin.

How to Get to the Interesting Stuff

According to Nightingall, many of our conversations with people we don't know are scripts.  We go into autopilot, and the best way is to get off auto-pilot… is to break the script.  For example, maybe the grocery clerk asks you “How are you doing?”  Most of the time, our knee-jerk response is “Fine, how are you?”  Which then leads to their answering “Fine.”  End of conversation.  That’s what she refers to as a “script.”

So, how do you break the script?  She says you do it by being specific and by surprise.

An example would be,  instead of asking “How is your day going?”  Ask them “Has your day lived up to your expectations?”

Two young women talking happy outdoor

Another common script is small talk at a party or social gathering. Her suggestion is at a party or social gathering, rather than the standard  “What do you do?”  Ask “What would you like to do more of?”

Nightingall admits it takes a level of confidence to pull this off without making it weird, but done correctly it does work… you end up with a little insight of what it’s like to be that person.

It may feel awkward at first… like any other skill, it takes practice.

Statements Rather Than Questions

You’ve established a little connection; now what?  Well, most of us start asking questions, which makes a certain amount of sense.  After all, you’re showing an interest in that person rather than making the conversation all about you.  Right?

Well, not so much.  According to Nightingall, starting out with a barrage of questions can seem more like prying or an interview.  The person you’re speaking to ends up wondering where you’re coming from and whether you have an agenda.

Woman annoyed making stop sign with hand 

She goes on to say that even one personal question asked too soon can create an uncomfortable interaction because you’re asking something of them.

She goes on to say that questions are really a demand… it requires a response.  Her suggestion is to make a statement.  Statements are a better way to get the conversation going.

Rather than a question compelling an answer, a statement leaves it up to them to decide whether they want to talk.  So, it’s an offer to continue the interaction.

The article goes on to point out other actions you should keep in mind.  Here’s a couple of tips Nightingall gives I thought were beneficial.

  1. Asking questions too quickly and your body language (leaning forward, for example) can suggest you’re looking for something to pounce on. It’s no longer a conversation, but more like an interview.  And if you’re not careful, can feel like an interrogation.
  1. In an effective conversation, you need to give up control. Your job is to help your partner come up with their own conclusion and surprise you.  She says your goal is not  “to ferret out whatever it is, slap a bow on it and go, Next!” It’s to learn something about them.
  1. Your goal is to let go of control, let your partner take the lead, and by doing so learn something new, get a different perspective and maybe make a new friend or contact.

Keohane’s article goes more in-depth about our reluctance to strike up a conversation with strangers… you can read the complete article by clicking here.

So, are you ready to talk to strangers… what will you’re opening dialogue be?

Me; I need some serious practice! ?


Enjoy this blog? Please spread the word :)