How to talk to strangers – part 2
The art of conversation
Now that we’ve dealt with the principles, let’s talk about practicalities.
- Make the most of small talk
Small talk can be boring, but it’s a necessary step in the relationship-building process. It helps the other person feel more comfortable with you, and it gradually opens the doors that lead to trust and empathy. So start by introducing yourself and asking some surface level questions—things like, “Is this your first time here?”, “How did you hear about us?” and even “Do you live/work close by?” Note that these are all questions the other person would find easy to answer because they don’t require much thought.
From there, you can move onto other more general get-to-know you questions—for example, “So what occupies your time during the week?” (less pointed than “What do you do for work?” as not everyone works), “How’s your weekend been so far?” or even “What are you up to today?” The aim is to learn about the other person and fill out your mental picture of who they are and how you can love and serve them. It helps if you can find points of commonality and connection—for example, you’re both teachers, you’re both into Marvel superhero movies, or you’re both parents of toddlers—as these help build your relationship further.
- Practise curiosity
Small talk is good for information, but it’s less helpful for understanding a person—who they are and what makes them tick. So be open and curious about your new acquaintance. Dig a little deeper where possible. For example, if you learn that your new conversation partner is an English teacher, ask them how long they’ve been teaching, how they got into teaching in the first place, what they like about teaching, and what they find challenging (and why). If they’re a parent of three kids under five, ask them what they enjoy about parenting, what sort of things they find difficult, and what tricks they do to juggle everything.
Notice that these questions are more open-ended and a bit harder to answer because they require the responder to think. (Also, note that the person you’re talking to may not want to think, so tread gently.) But the questions are helpful as their answers reveal more about your new acquaintance’s inner life—their thoughts, feelings and values. That’s the most interesting part for me; they make people endlessly fascinating. And if you find a person interesting in some way, it’s easier to be curious about them. But make sure your curiosity is genuine and not stemming from unhelpful motives. People tend to sense when your heart isn’t really in it.
- Listen, listen, listen
Thirdly, be quick to listen. This seems obvious, but some people are more interested in getting to the part where they get to speak. Reiterating what I said earlier, it’s not about you; it’s about them. You’re getting to know them. So get out of the way. Listen to what they have to say (even if you disagree with it). Make sure you’ve heard and understood them. Practise active listening where appropriate—making eye contact, nodding, and even repeating what they’ve said back to them so that they know you’ve heard them: “So for you, the best part of being a teacher is getting to introduce new things to your kids and inspiring them to be creative. That’s so cool!” Ask more questions—for clarification or about things you’ve always wondered. Remember the goal of loving and serving the other.
That said, try not to make the conversation an interrogation. If you’re the one continually peppering them with questions, things can feel a little one-sided. It’s okay to back off a bit and volunteer something about yourself—particularly if it connects with the other person’s experience: “I love it when teachers do stuff like that! My Year 5 teacher would get us to do these drawings and then encourage us to write stories about them.” If that leads to them asking you questions, all the better. (part 3 next week)
Karen Beilharz is a Sydney-based writer, editor and comics creator best known for her work on ‘Kinds of Blue: An anthology of short comics about depression’ and ‘Eternal Life’, a science fiction graphic novel with Paul Wong-Pan. (Find more of her work at hivemindedness.com.) She is a former editor of ‘The Briefing’ and attends church in Sydney’s Inner West, where she is heavily involved with their play group. She is married to Ben and together they have two delightful, precocious little girls. Whenever she has a spare moment, she is watching movies, knitting or furiously catching up on her Twitter feed.