For the past several years, I’ve been urging seminar participants (and anyone else who will listen) to take the initiative in starting conversations with total strangers. It’s something that comes naturally to me, but when I started getting questions about how to actually do it, I analyzed how I go about it. Some of it is purely intuitive, of course, but there are also some behavioral components.
Whether you’re standing in line at the post office or waiting for a train, here are a few ideas to help you uncover the fascinating folks around you.
- Make it a game. Decide ahead of time that you want to find an interesting story or inspiring stranger. I have been on long flights that seemed to pass in a moment because I had landed next to a great storyteller. I consider that a fine compensation for the annoyances of contemporary travel. It’s also helpful to remember that it’s not about you; shine the spotlight on them.
- Don’t wait. Instigate. Be willing to be the one who takes the first step. A friendly smile is a good way to test the water. If it’s not reciprocated, move on.
- Look for common ground. I often open a conversation with a compliment or observation about something the stranger is wearing or carrying or something that’s happening around us.
When I hopped into a London taxi that was covered in promotional material for the Rolling Stones, i suspected I had a fascinating chat ahead of me. And I did. I learned that my driver was the only cab in the city promoting the Stones, that he earned an extra £750 a year by putting advertising on his cab, and that he’d once advertised for the South African Tourist Board and got a free trip to the country as a bonus. He was hoping he might get tickets to the Stones concert this time around.
° Be politely curious. Our reluctance to talk to strangers may be caused by thinking it’s about us. Wrong. It’s about them. Yes, you might be subjected to a tedious story now and then, but it’s worth the risk.
One of my most memorable conversations was with a young man who was a linguistic professor who spoke seven languages. (How do you think I learned that?) I asked him the best way to learn a language and his reply was, “Be a kid.” I laughed and asked him, “What’s the second best?” The entire trip turned out to be an interview with me learning a lot about linguistics.
Those are the moments that keep me talking to strangers who unknowingly enrich my life. And like everything else, it gets easier with practice.
By the way, you don’t need to be on a trip to do this. Social networking provides wonderful opportunities every single day to start up a conversation with someone who is about to stop being a stranger. If you’d like to develop some ease with that, join Christine Gallagher and me for our upcoming teleclass, Conversation Transformation. We were strangers until we met on Twitter.