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talking to strangers
Do you have problems talking with strangers?

As small children, we are told not to talk to strangers for obvious reasons. However, some of us forget to leave the habit behind and carry it into adulthood instead, leading to a lot of unwanted social anxiety.

Related: Converse Confidently

Before anything, it is important to identify that the fear of approaching new people is only superficial and not a real threat. The worst that could happen is they give you a cold shoulder — but why would you want such a person in your life anyway? So let’s put the made-up fear aside first.

Although it is easy to identify when you’re boring someone, it could be difficult to find interesting conversation starters, especially if you’re talking to a stranger you met on the train or airplane, or even at your super-market.

When approaching new people, the key is to understand what interests them, and use the right approach accordingly. And if you’re after making some new friends, you probably know where to find them but not how to approach them.

For starters, it takes a shift in the mindset. If you’re someone who is constantly thinking of avoiding rejection when talking to strangers, you’re unconsciously focused on the rejection part. Instead, decide to shift your mindset by focussing on what happens once you’ve made friends with the now-stranger.

Visualization works very well here. It helps to imagine the scene afterwards when you two are fairly comfortable with each other, you might even have a common connection, hobby or business idea that you can come together with a joint venture.

When I first came to Australia, I wanted to meet new people and explore the area of human behavior as much as I could so I could help others to break bad behavioural habits and negative beliefs. That was my goal.

I started a Meetup group where I’d meet new people every week over coffee or at small workshops I held. I don’t remember saying no to any “coffee chat” opportunity, and as a result, met so many wonderful people, some of whom have signed up to become my clients and some others have turned into friends over time.

Call it networking, socializing, or whatever you like, but the idea of having coffee with a stranger was pretty new to me. Back in my home country, India, you don’t meet “strangers” at cafes. Well, not at least until 2009 when I was living there.

But through my experiences, I’ve come to conclude that usually, people are nice and they are happy to engage in a conversation with you.

Here are 7 ways to start talking to a stranger today:

1. It’s all in the mindset

When approaching someone new, keep your mindset in check. Detach yourself from any imagined negative outcome and go into it with an open mind. There is a whole lot of difference between what we expect to happen and what really happens when you give it a shot.

Think about the last time you were afraid to go to a networking meeting and compare the before and after scenarios. Usually, you’ll find that you overestimated the worst-case scenario.

2. Do it despite the fear

One of my personal favourite self-help books is Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway by Susan Jeffers.

In the book, Susan decodes fear into three levels. One is the surface level fear that is triggered by external events or by your doing such as aging, children leaving home, illness, changing careers etc. Second level is fears based on internal states of your mind – fear of rejection, failure, success etc. Third level is simply the fear of “I can’t handle it”.

If you look at the three levels, the third level is an absolute solution for all fears (including rejection). Once you can convince yourself that you CAN handle it, you’re good to go. You approach any uncomfortable situation with ease. Why? Because you know you have the capacity to handle it no matter what happens.

And isn’t it true? We humans are terrific problem handlers. We’ve overcome the grief of going bankrupt, losing a loved one, breaking up a marriage – so approaching a stranger? Sure, you can handle it.

Courage does not turn up in the mail – it comes up when you do it despite the fear! To summon courage, the first step is to act. Remember, the person you’re talking to is perhaps also shy and a little uncomfortable. Make it easier for them by taking the lead.

3. Be interested

An old saying goes, “Don’t be interesting, be interested.”

When you strike up a conversation for the first time, be curious about what the other person likes and does. Curiosity is one of the most beautiful characteristics you could ever possess.

You could start with, “Wow, that’s a lovely stone in your neck piece. What is it?” “That’s a beautiful ring! Is it from your husband?”

The best way you can start talking to pretty much anyone is by being interested in their life. For example, if you start with “Lovely weather today!” and they reply, “Yes, it’s great time to get the barbeque out,” you could talk about socializing over barbeque to keep the conversation going.

4. Give a reaction, for God’s sake!

Have you experienced an awkward moment where you cracked a joke and the other person didn’t make an effort to laugh? How did you feel? You don’t want others to go through the same feeling, do you?

If they joke, try to laugh and appreciate the effort. Or perhaps your new friend is interested in trivia ad share an interesting bit such as “Do you know when he won the Golden Globe Award, he thanked every American for not suing him? Sacha Baron Cohen for the movie Borat!”

Now even if you don’t particularly enjoy the said actor’s movies try to be friendly and surprised. You can keep the conversation going by adding another trivia question or talking about the movie itself.

Whatever you do, don’t just be sitting next to them without any reaction. People like to see you react in some way, otherwise it gives a signal that you’re bored in the conversation.

5. Help them at something

I’ve had several experiences when others have suggested me things to help me with my business. There was a guy I met at an event who, after learning that I write for magazines, suggested an editor’s name who might be interested in the stories I usually deal write.

Although I haven’t written for that magazine yet, I have made a new connection with the editor through the guy at the event. We have kept in touch through social media, on and off. Given a chance in future, I wouldn’t think twice to help him.

That’s how you leave an impression on others – you help them to be helped later by them.

6. Complement them

We all love to stroke our egos, and what better way to make them feel important than genuinely complementing them? Be someone who recognises their skills or something remarkable about them.

Complement them on something not so obvious. For example, if they have a great voice, you can be sure many people would have already commented on that. Instead, find something else, such as the way they talk with their kids in a calm and understanding manner and complement on that.

7. If it’s not going the way you want…

…admit it! Be open about how hard you both are trying to keep the conversation going – you never know, you might end up with a great laugh and building a rapport straight away. You might also find something common between the two of you.

I like that scene in The Big Bang Theory when Howard and Bernadette meet for the first time and they can find nothing in common. Howard tries a lot but eventually gives up. That’s when his mom calls on the phone and bingo! Bernadette shares that her mom is even more annoying that his. The result? They hit it off at the dinner table!

Here’s the scene in case you’re interested 🙂

How would you start a conversation with a stranger? Share your tips below.

Image by Sukanto Debnath.

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