Dermaskin – Entrepreneurs need to become experts at connecting with anyone – and with a few simple strategies, you can. Here’s what happened when I tried them myself.
A few years ago, I started talking to strangers.
That’s not to say I hadn’t talked to strangers before this because I did. I’m the son and brother of very outgoing small business owners and a journalist, so talking to strangers is both a way of life and a livelihood for me. And yet, a few years ago, I noticed that I didn’t do it much, if at all. Between a demanding job and a very demanding small child, I was often tired, distracted, and overworked. The prospect of starting conversations with strangers in cafes, bars, or on the bus was beginning to scare me. Eventually, I just stopped doing it.
It was a coping strategy, of course. I was overwhelmed, so something had to go. And talking to strangers can, in the end, be taxing. Psychologists have found that chatting with strangers can be cognitively demanding, tiring, and stressful. It’s logic. You don’t know the person; you don’t know where the conversation is going, so you have to be more attentive than talking to someone you know well. But psychologists have found that talking to a stranger boosts your mental performance — for that exact reason: exercise. I was saving myself a bit of effort, but I also noticed that my life was becoming less attractive, less surprising, and maybe even a little lonely.
After my revelation, I asked myself: Why don’t we talk to strangers more? What happens when we do, and how can we improve? Many researchers are asking the same questions. I started traveling the world to meet them: psychologists, evolutionary scientists, historians, urban planners, entrepreneurs, sociologists, and – you guessed it – met a ton of fascinating strangers along the way. They all taught me that talking to strangers can be fun and improve our sense of well-being, make us smarter, expand our social and professional networks, and even help us overcome some of our social problems—the most difficult to solve.
During my research, I kept coming back to the implications that talking to strangers might have for entrepreneurs. Coming from a family of small business owners – and having served as editor of this magazine for a time – I have seen firsthand how beneficial it is for entrepreneurs to refine their social skills. I’ve also spoken to many college professors who lament that their students struggle to form casual social connections that will serve them so well once they begin their careers. And, like all of us, I’m coming out of a year spent in relative quarantine. I need to catch up on those skills and need to get used to the kind of free, fun, fruitful, and, yes, sometimes tricky social interactions we’ve been deprived of for over a year.
Our journey begins with a bright day in a small classroom at Regent’s University. I’m sitting in a chair, limp from jet lag, clutching my third cup of coffee. Four other people are also present. They seem to work at a higher level than mine, thankfully. We came to this class to learn how to talk to strangers.
Our teacher is an energetic young woman in her twenties named Georgie Nightingale. She is the founder of Trigger Conversations, an acclaimed London “human connection organization” which organizes social events and immersive workshops aimed at helping people have meaningful interactions with strangers. Since its founding in 2016, Nightingale has done over 100 events and numerous pieces of training – with strangers, businesses, communities, universities, and conferences, in London and around the world.
Ms. Nightingall has learned that for many people, the most challenging part of talking to strangers is engaging in conversation: approaching someone, building their trust, and quickly letting them know that ‘we don’t have a goal, whether we’re just friendly or curious. She’s found that older people are much more likely to initiate a conversation, for example, while younger people need more assertiveness. But she also found that in all her attempts to talk to strangers, most of those interactions were substantive, and many went well.
She also came to think — and this is important — that getting into the habit of talking to strangers could offer more than just a feel-good boost. There was joy there, depth, a real communion. If this practice were widespread enough, she believed it could help mend a fractured society. “We’re not just talking about a few individualized things,” she says. “We are talking about a different way of living”.
Ms. Nightingall stands in front of our class, bright, engaging, and eloquent, telling us what to expect over the next few days. She wants to take us “from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence, and from conscious competence to unconscious competence,” she says. In other words, we’re currently bad at it and need to figure out why or how. We will learn what we lack. We will improve. And we will become so proficient that it will become second nature.
Our first lesson is chatter. Many people hate chatting, which is understandable because the conversation is often very dull. Ms. Nightingall agrees with this point. Yes, she said, small talk can be tedious. But that’s because most people need help understanding what it’s for. This is not a conversation. It is the opening of a better conversation. It’s a way to be comfortable with each other and find a conversation topic. That’s why, she says, it’s essential to be aware of your response when someone asks you something like, “What do you do for a living?” You don’t understand what this question is asking: “What should we talk about, you and me?”
Ms. Nightingall came to this conclusion through several sources. She has done improv in the past, and in improvisation, a skit is started with something familiar to all audience members – something relevant, timely, or present in the room – to bind the room together. . Only then can you take the audience on a ride. That’s small talk. But Nightingale also followed the work of social anthropologist Kate Fox, who studied, for example, the seemingly inexhaustible desire of the English to discuss the weather. While some critics pointed to this affinity as evidence of an apathetic and unimaginative people, Fox argued that the weather was irrelevant. Instead, it is a means of creating social bonds, a greeting ritual. “An English meteorological language is a form of code, which evolved to help us overcome our nature reserve and talk to each other,” Fox writes. It’s not the content but the familiarity, connection, and reassurance. Once these elements are in place, a real conversation can take place.
When you recognize that small talk is just a doorway to a better conversation, Nightingale says, it can be helpful because it’s structured in a way that naturally leads you to common ground. We’ve all experienced how these conversations, if given time, can evolve in ever tighter circles until you both stumble upon something you have in common and what you want to talk about. Once that’s in place, you can walk away, get a little more personal, and go deeper. But that’s probably up to you, says Nightingale. “Everyone is interesting, but it’s not for them to show it to you – it’s for you to find out.”
The best way to learn about these exciting things, says Nightingale, is to “break the script.” This means using small talk techniques but resisting the temptation of autopilot. For example, you walk into a store and say, “How are you?” The salesman replies, “Good; how are you?” The conversation contains no information and goes nowhere. It’s a script. We use hands to make interactions more efficient, especially in busy, dense, fast-paced places like big cities. But in doing so, we deprive ourselves of the possibility of having a better experience, even of establishing new contact, and we deprive ourselves of all the advantages that can come from talking to strangers.
So how do you break these scripts? With specificity and surprise, according to Ms. Nightingall. For example, when someone asks her, “How are you?” she does not answer, “Good”. Instead, she says, “I’d say I’m 7.5 out of 10.” She briefly explains why she has a 7.5, asks the person how they are, and then waits. This is where the mirroring phenomenon comes in, where people naturally follow the example of their interlocutors. If you say something general, he will answer something available. If you say something specific, he’s likely to say the same. So because Mrs. Nightingall gave a number, her partner is expected to provide a number himself. If he says he has a 6, Nightingale will ask, “What does it take to get you to an 8?”. This specificity creates a light atmosphere and makes it more difficult for the other person to maintain the belief that you are of a lower mind because it instantly demonstrates complexity, feelings, and humor: humanity. , in other words. “Straight away they’re like, ‘Oh, you’re a human being,’ Nightingale says. ‘You have this connection, and then, naturally, things open up.’
Here are some other ways Nightingale suggests breaking up a script. When a salesperson asks: “Can I help you?” you can answer: “Can I help you?”. Instead of asking party attendees what they are doing, ask them what they would like to do more or what they don’t. Or, instead of asking someone how their day was, ask them, “Did your day live up to your expectations?” According to Ms. Nightingall, all of these questions require a certain amount of self-confidence. But they work. And when they do, they reveal a little bit of what it’s like to be that person. This is significant because this nugget indicates what lies beneath the surface. “The way you do something is the way you do everything,” Nightingale says. This nugget tells you where to go next in the conversation.
Once you have established a remote connection, what do you do? I usually start asking questions. It’s logical: I show that I’m interested in my interlocutor and do it by showing curiosity. But the paradox of conversing with a stranger, Nightingale says, is that while curiosity is a must, a barrage of questions from the start can feel like prying or questioning. The interlocutor has yet to learn where you are coming from very well, and he does not know if you have any projects. Even one personal question asked too soon can create an uncomfortable dynamic because you’re asking someone for something. You make a request.
Ms. Nightingall suggests that statements, not questions, are a better way to start a conversation. A question compels an answer, whereas a statement leaves it up to the other person to decide if they or want to talk. This is not a request but an offer. You notice something in your everyday environment, make an observation, and leave it to your interlocutor to answer. If he does, you respond with another statement that builds on what he said.
Ideally, these observations shouldn’t be silly – “I noticed the sun rose today!” – but they can be simple. As with conversations about the weather in England, this indicates a shared experience. Mr. Nightingall has found that proximity is also helpful. If you’re in a museum, approaching someone looking at a painting and saying, “What do you think?” is very different from observing an image after standing next to it for 30 seconds. It is because you have been in their proximity. They got used to your presence, and you showed some self-control. So you can talk. It looks less like an invasion.
One day in class, my classmates and I paired up to practice our technique. I team up with “Paula”, who tells me that one of her favorite things is to have a cup of good coffee on the weekends and sit alone. I try to remember Nightingale’s advice to start with affirmations and not questions, but now that we’re on the beat, I’ll get to it. After four questions, Paula talks about how resentful she feels about working for other people. I am happy for returning to Nightingale with this pheasant in my mouth. But she is less impressed. She gently explains that while “it’s clear you’re a person who asks questions for a living,” everything in my body language suggests I’m looking for something to pounce on. I was asking questions too quickly, she said. I leaned forward. It wasn’t a conversation; it was an interview. Maybe even an interrogation.
Ms. Nightingall suggested asking more straightforward and more open-ended questions. Instead of saying, “Do you think it’s because you’re a control freak?” echo, or say, “Why do you think that’s the case?” It’s the opposite of what I usually do, but it’s what I have to learn to do. In a good conversation, you have to give up control. Your job is to help your partner come to their conclusion and surprise you, not find out what it is, highlight it, and say, “Next! There’s a powerful lesson here: If you are only interested in the things you know you are interested in, you will never be surprised. You will never learn anything new, you will never have a unique perspective, and you will never make new friends or Turns out the key to talking to strangers is letting go, letting them lead, and the world opens up to you.
Why don’t we talk to strangers? The answer I’ve heard repeatedly from the experts is that we don’t talk to strangers. In many places, for many reasons, it has become a social norm, and social models are compelling. That’s why Ms. Nightingall uses a foolproof method to break the middle and openly acknowledge that you are breaking it.
She asks us to imagine we’re taking public transport – which, as we know, is the last place you talk to a stranger. There is someone who seems interesting to us. We can’t turn to that person and say, “Why do I find you so interesting?” because if you say something like that to a stranger on the subway, he’ll assume it’s the start of a chain of events that will culminate in his transformation into homemade taxidermy. Nightingale, therefore, suggests what is called a pre-frame. This idea is based on the field of neurolinguistic programming, which teaches people to “reframe” possible negative thoughts of others, that is, to redefine their expectations for the interaction. Ordinarily, we might be suspicious if a stranger starts talking to us. We need to find out who he is, what he wants, and if he’s in the right mind. What a pre-executive does is reassure them that you know all of this.
To do this, you recognize upfront that it violates a social norm. You say, “Listen, I know we’re not supposed to talk to people on the subway, but…” That shows you’re in complete control. You are not erratic, disturbed, or somehow off the mark. This helps to alleviate mistrust and opens up the possibility of connection. Once that connection is made, Nightingale says, you follow the frame with a statement — “I like your sunglasses,” for example. Then, you have to justify your information: “I just lost mine and was looking for a new pair”. The justification lessens the suspicions of the person who thinks you have an idea in mind and allows you to speak more openly.
This is when the questions become more critical, according to Ms. Nightingall. Questions have many functions, which is why, as I learned in my exercise with Paula, they can be complicated. Yes, questions help you get information. And yes, on a deeper level, they help your interlocutor clarify what they are trying to say. But they also allow us to bond emotionally with other people. In a series of studies conducted in 2017, psychologist Karen Huang and her colleagues found that “people who ask more questions, especially follow-up questions, are liked more by their conversation partners.” The authors found that those who ask more questions are perceived to be more responsive — “listening, understanding, validating, and caring.” In other words, people like us because we care about them.
Still, the researchers note people tend not to ask many questions. Why? For several reasons. “First, writes Huang, people may not think about asking questions at all…because they are egocentric – focused on expressing their thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, with little or no interest in hearing what another person has to say. Or they get so distracted by other aspects of the conversation that they don’t realize it’s possible to ask a question.” Even if a question comes to someone’s mind, they may not ask it, fearing it’s off the mark and “perceived as rude, inappropriate, intrusive, or incompetent.” In this case, people will probably talk about themselves, which studies show they do twice as often as they talk about other topics – which, ironically, makes people love less. (Good job, everyone.)
But what is the right question to ask? Mr. Nightingall takes us through an exercise in which we are given mundane statements – the kind we commonly hear in small talk – and asked to come up with good questions. For example, a student says she ran along the Thames yesterday. There’s hardly anything in the world that’s less interesting to me than running, and usually, I’d take that as a cue to start planning my escape. But, starting from the idea that the conversation is a means and not an end, the class thinks about the right questions to ask that could lead to something more personal or more interesting: “Do you run every day ?” “Is it a passion for you?” “What would you do if you couldn’t run every day?” I suggest, “What are you running from?”, which is supposed to be a joke, but the class seems to buy into it.
Then we move on to the other question: It’s about listening. When people start talking, you need to listen to them, make eye contact, and generally show that you’re engaged. We know that, of course. But we are only sometimes able to show it. Two effective techniques for signaling commitment are paraphrasing what people just said – “It sounds like you’re saying…” – and echoing – which is simply repeating once in a while what your partner is coming from. to say – these two techniques are commonly used by therapists and hostage negotiators to foster connection and build trust. For example, if he says, “I guess at that time I was frustrated,” you say, “You were frustrated.” It sounds bizarre and unnatural, and it’s embarrassing to do, and if you overdo it, your partner will think there’s something wrong with you. But I’m here to attest that, done right, it’s incredibly effective. It’s like a magic trick. Researchers have come to the same conclusion. According to French psychologists Nicolas Guéguen and Angélique Martin, “research has shown that mimicry…leads to greater sympathy for the imitator” and helps build rapport during social interaction.
Nightingale breaks down listening into three levels. There is listening to things you know. This is the most superficial level. This is when someone says something about baseball, and you jump on it and start talking about baseball. Then there’s listening to information – you’re curious about someone, but your questions are aimed at gathering factual data. It’s also more about you and your interests. And finally, there is the deepest level of listening: listening to experiences, feelings, motivations, and values. This type of listening goes beyond mere listening or assertiveness. It is about paying attention and striving to understand. It manifests through eye contact, echoing, and paraphrasing and can be explored further by asking clarifying questions – why? How? ‘Or’ What? Who ? – that helps the person get to the heart of the matter.
In other words, at this level of listening, you’re not just figuring out what you want to talk about, giving advice, or trying to come up with something intelligent to say in response. It’s not your diary. This level of commitment involves helping your partner figure out what they want to talk about and letting you do it. You still have to talk a little about yourself, says Ms. Nightingall, to give a little and not make the person feel like you’ve just rummaged through their privacy office and walked away with a watch. But you want the focus to be on the person. It is, once again, a form of hospitality. You welcome someone. You are giving up some form of control. You give him space. You are taking a risk. This risk opens you up to the potential benefits of talking to a stranger.
During lunch and after class, I try some of these techniques around London. I ask a bartender in her twenties in a pub if the day met her expectations, and she admits without asking me too much if it did. She is about to quit her day job. She feels like she’s been dangled with the merits of a corporate career, and she’s going to empty her savings and travel the world. She hasn’t told anyone yet, she said. But she will soon.
During lunch at a Lebanese take-out restaurant, I ask the owner which dishes on the menu he is most proud of – because that’s what I want. He takes pieces of this and that and puts them in my bag. I tell him that I grew up in a white neighborhood, and when I was a child, a Lebanese family moved in behind us and handed us over-the-fence plates of what was at the time very exotic food. . Since then, Lebanese food has always been among my favorites. Curiously, when I eat it, I think of home. As Nightingale instructed me, I started the conversation with a statement, not a question. The owner tells me that in Lebanon, this type of hospitality is essential; people always prepare a lot of food for visitors. As he speaks, he continues to put food in my bag. When he’s done, the bag weighs about two kilos, and he charges me maybe a third.
At the end of the last day of class, Mrs. Nightingall tells us that practice is essential. She says some encounters will go badly, and some will be great, but over time we’ll become more comfortable internalizing the techniques we’ve learned. We will be more daring or more playful. Our confidence, tone, and body language will lessen people’s distrust of the flagrant violation of a long-standing social norm.
Indeed, Mrs. Nightingall is something of a magician in this area. One day, she struck up a conversation with a man on the subway by showing her hat, smiling, and simply saying “hat”. According to her, she sometimes stabs people in the street. She smiles at people going in the opposite direction on an escalator to see if they’ll smile back. She does not order an Americano but “the best Americano in the world”. And people respond. One day during a break, I walked into the campus Starbucks for another coffee. Nightingale was already there, chatting with a waitress she had never met. She told me he gave her the coffee for free when we walked out.
Nightingale’s free coffee and my Lebanese meal were no coincidences. As I learned time and time again while testing out techniques for talking to strangers, I would often be rewarded with free food. There are far more fruitful, meaningful, and valuable reasons to talk to strangers. But the food stuck with me. Then I understood why: When you start a good conversation with a stranger, it’s like giving him an unusual gift. And more often than not, they want to give you something back.