Understandably, people often feel awkward starting a conversation with someone they don’t know. The extra energy and effort though can be unexpectedly rewarding.
The new person you reach out to at work, school or a party may teach you something new, offer you a job lead, help you understand, allow you to feel better understood—or even wind up becoming a close friend. At minimum, you may simply derive enjoyment from having had an enlightening or lively conversation.
Here are some tips to grease the skids and make conversations with strangers go more smoothly:
Be a Good Listener
It sounds like an oxymoron but to be a good conversationalist, you need to be a good listener. This entails giving the other person your full attention. Resist the urge to check your smartphone for emails or texts, or to think about the next person you want to approach. Try to clear your head of outside worries and concentrate fully on the person in front of you.
If you have a tendency to talk too much, remember that conversations aren’t monologues. The give and take of an enjoyable conversation balances speaking with attentive listening.
Find a Way To Connect
You and the person you’ve just met may both work at the same office, live in the same neighborhood, or know people in common (at a party, for example, you’re both likely to know the host or hostess). Discovering one or more common threads by exchanging questions and answers is a nice way to break the ice and make the other person feel comfortable.
You can ask, for example, “how do you know Alice?” or “is this the first class you’ve taken here?” Another tactic: if you like the person’s shoes or hairstyle, tell her. People always welcome compliments.
Avoid Being Intrusive
Some questions or topics, however, can put people off guard. In fact, the same topics you might discuss with close friends may be off-limits with people you are just getting to know. Don’t talk about your love life or an argument you had with a friend. Stay away from potentially divisive topics like religion, politics and money.
Asking too many question can make someone else feel uncomfortable, too, especially ones that are very personal or intrusive. Don’t act like an interrogator, and try to be sensitive to the other person’s comfort level with the subject you are discussing.
Are you a stay-at-home mom who feels like your life would be boring to anyone else, especially someone who isn’t a mother? Are you a workaholic with few interests outside the office? Staying abreast of news, sports, and/or popular culture will provide you with fodder for your next conversation.
If you want to be a good conversationalist, make an effort to read current books and magazines and/or watch TV. It may even be helpful to consciously come prepared with an interesting topic for discussion.
Sometimes, it helps to be the first one in the room rather than to enter a room where everyone is already engaged in conversation. If you do come later, try to find someone who is alone; it’s easier than breaking into a group.
Pay Attention To Facial Expressions and Body Language
Be attentive to the non-verbal cues you may be giving. Some good tips: try to maintain eye contact with the other person, stand close enough but not too close, and smile whenever appropriate. A 2013 article in the Wall Street Journal reported that the ideal length of an individuals’ eye gaze is between 7 and 10 seconds. If it’s longer, people feel as if they are being stared at; if it’s shorter, people get the idea that you’re anxious.
Also be attentive to the facial expression, gestures and body language of the person to whom you are speaking. If you see the other person diverting her eyes, looking at her watch, or stepping back, she may be signaling that you should pause. If that’s the case, give her a chance to redirect or end the conversation.
Use Humor Judiciously
Sharing a good laugh is a great way to break down barriers and make others feel comfortable. People are usually responsive to smart, spontaneous humor as long as it’s not made at their expense or that of someone else. Long canned jokes you’ve memorized and told out of context can turn people off and interfere with getting to know each other. If you are not funny at all, don’t attempt to be funny when just meeting a new person.
Never feign to be someone you’re not. Other people can usually tell when someone is acting self-aggrandizing or insincere. Try to relax even if you feel a bit nervous inside and let your real self come through.
If you are the type of person who tends to be guarded with new people, make extra efforts to allow the other person to get to know you. When someone comes across as very shy and reserved, people often mistake her/his demeanor as being unfriendly.
A series of studies reviewed by Arthur Markman, PhD in Psychology Today in 2014, found that commuters (on buses and trains) enjoyed their commutes more when they engaged in conversation. He concludes that the ubiquitous use of electronic devices make it easy to hide and avoid connections with strangers, but by doing so, “…most of us are missing out on a big opportunity to enjoy our life just a little more.”
If you tend to feel shy or awkward meeting new people, practice the skills of starting a conversation with people around you, ones with whom you already feel safe and comfortable—perhaps a good friend or relative. Then you’ll be ready for the big time!