There was the soft background music of saxophone jazz. The atmosphere was cool. The shoes of most men and women in suits made little echoing squeaks against the tiles. The seminar just ended and my young brain had drunk millilitres of ecstatic aura.
My focus was on Mr Collins — the one who spoke on entrepreneurship. I had so many questions to ask: how to get your startup funded, how to globalize your brand and all.
I waited by the exit door closest to the podium. I stole some glimpses of him to monitor his movement.
Then I heard him say to a fellow speaker at the seminar that he’d have to leave as soon as possible. Then I thought it wise to go hang around the elevator outside.
Certainly, he came around to use the elevator; it was just the two of us, coincidentally. As the elevator sank, I felt slightly weightless but my heart, however, seemed heavy.
My soul kept biting me: just say something to him!
But I kept pacifying my mind: I would talk to him when the elevator got to the ground floor.
It was unsound of me to just assume Mr Collins was heading to the ground floor as well. When the door opened up, he walked out.
All I could murmur was a soft “S-ss-sir?” My right hand fairly stretched as though it should grab and pull him back inside before the elevator gates shut close. He looked back but our eyes could only connect through the narrow slit of the closing elevator gates till we saw no more.
I felt like poo.
As the elevator continued its journey downwards, I said to myself: Sixtus, promise yourself that you wouldn’t make this error again. Ever!
Some people find it effortlessly easy to start a conversation, to others, solving a math test would rather be preferred.
Yet, the importance of starting conversations is valued in areas ranging from businesses to networking, from making curious inquiries to asking for directions in unfamiliar places.
Why is it so hard for some to start a conversation?
The fear of the unknown is the major hindrance in speaking with a stranger. This fear can be split into two main fears:
- Fear of Rejection
One basic part of our instinctual makeup is socialization — the need for acceptance. We long to be part of the larger community, we feel a need to belong. And even when you want to pull out from the group, maybe to get into a distraction-free state to achieve a higher goal, you’d probably still feel that tinge of string pulling you back to the larger group — which is then left to your reasons and willpower to yield or not.
Rejection, unlike in the case of conscious separation from the world, doesn’t need your change of mind to go back; it is a no-thoroughfare situation and it can feel rather terrible. This ancient instinct is seen in play when we approach strangers. We could harbour the fear of being rejected, intensify the gravity of rejection in our minds and then decide not to even go through it in the first place.
Building on a theory by Robert K. Merton, an American sociologist who first coined the statement “self-fulfilling prophecy,” B. Renken et al (1989) stated that the expectation of rejection makes a person subconsciously exhibit a colder and more defensive trait towards other people which would, in turn, lead to actual rejection.
So basically, you would most likely materialize what you fear and pounder on. This then points out that we should be meticulous in choosing what we think about.
- Fear of Embarrassment
We resent any form of shame, especially public ones. This is why we would rather keep still than speak to a crowd for fear that they find out our insecurities or that there is something to make us a laughable character.
Basically, we naturally detest embarrassment and even avoid anyone or anything that could cause us such. Since we don’t know whether the stranger may act in ways that shower us with shame, we tend to not even make an effort to meet them. It may make you ask yourself why you should even bother talking to strangers.
Here are some reasons why you should bother talking to new people.
- It has been scientifically proven to boost our mood, especially because we are social beings by nature.
- We could learn something interesting from them.
- Talking with new people could open your mind to opportunities that you haven’t found by yourself and even discover a variety of thinking patterns and perspectives you haven’t been exposed to.
- Especially when everyone in a location is new, it could help the both of you feel less lonely or ostracized.
How can you overcome these fears?
There are two main ways to overcome this fear:
- Mindset reset
Make an intentional change of your thought about speaking to strangers. See it as a way to connect with someone new. See it as a medium to learn and enjoy one of the many human varieties life offers. Rather than unconsciously seeing strangers as people to avoid, picture them as friends not yet made.
Besides, all your friends now were once strangers if you think of it. You were not born with them, you met them as you walked the street called life — and there was a first time doing so.
- Constant and deliberate practice
Like any skill, regular practice strengthens the neural pathways that make it less hard to do next time.
Basically, the more you practice starting up conversations, the better you become at it.
How can you start a conversation with a stranger:
- Prep up your mind with positivity.
Give yourself more good reasons why you should speak with people than reasons why you shouldn’t. You can convince yourself with any of these statements:
It’s going to be just like talking to my best friend (mention the name), only that it is with another amazing person.
This is new but it sure would be a memorable moment.
This person seems interesting, I like interesting people.
Declarations like this make you start the conversation with a positive vibe with no restraint.
- Smile — genuinely.
Genuine smiles symbolize friendliness — at least that’s how the human brain sees it. It tells the other person that although there is someone strange talking to them, it’s okay to relax. According to a study by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh, it has also been proven to build trust.
Smiling has an equal benefit to you; it helps you relax. It tells you, “the environment is fine over here; there is nothing to fear.”
- Harness the power of deep breathing when nervous
Take a couple of deep breaths as you walk up to the person or just before you make a move to speak or walk to the person.
There are many breathing techniques, but I would recommend using the box breathing exercise. The exercise is simple. It involves these basic steps:
- Exhale for a count of four.
- Hold your relatively-empty lungs for a count of four.
- Inhale for a count of four.
- Hold your relatively-full lungs for a count of four.
Simple right? (Or maybe not. I understand that it might be quite challenging especially if it’s your first time). This should be done for at least three rounds up till the moment when you feel calm. You can start small, then increase the size of your box to 5, 6 or 7 counts as you get better at it. You may feel light-headed but this fades away soon. Just don’t be too hard on yourself, especially as a beginner.
This exercise calms you down and helps lower your stress and anxiety level which could cloud your normal thinking process. Doing this helps calm you down so you can have clarity in your speech and may improve your concentration and reasoning speed.
- Understand that you cannot truly know someone until you get close.
Some people appear like wild wolves when outdoors only for you to find out that they are only wounded cubs trying to appear frightening. Or they might seem so calm and nerdy outside but can be cool and really interesting people in private.
- Transfer the excessive self-consciousness to people’s awareness.
Try to focus on them not yourself — ignore unnecessary self-consciousness like: are my shoelaces tied perfectly? Is my nose sweaty? Is there a coffee stain on my shirt?
These thoughts distract you and make you say or act in your not-so-best self. Try focusing on the other person and remind yourself that you’re perfectly fine.
- Give out sincere comments or compliments.
As you walk towards them, give a quick but subtle scan of their appearance to find out one thing you like about them and make positive comments on that thing.
For example, I could say, “I like the way your teeth glitter when you throw a smile; I find your hair attractive, did you apply any special care to it or you were just born special? I like the way you speak with authority or I love your voice, it’s one of a kind. These comments ease off most of the tension that might have built up initially. And please… be sincere.
- Don’t pretend.
In anything you say or do, be yourself. Be real. Be truthful. Don’t feign a character you are not. When they find out that you were not who you presented yourself to be, it can ruin their trust in you and make them less open to you.
- Listen; make it about them, first.
People love to express themselves. Most do so by talking about themselves, what they’ve achieved, who they have met, celebrities they love or subjects they find most fascinating.
You know about yourself already. Why not learn something new from the other person as they speak? And better, when people are really being listened to, it makes them feel good.
- Ask questions
Asking questions shows you are interested in the life of the other person. Research says most people are interested in people who are interested in them.
Additionally, questions, when asked correctly, have proven to be a conversation mover. Asking questions related to the previous question makes the conversation flow smoothly.
As you do so try to spot similar interests you both share and build upon them. This builds up the human connection as people would most likely become attracted to someone who shares similar interests or experiences with them.
As an example, we’ll study the conversation between Alex and Nancy.
Alex: It seems you have a love for yellow leather jackets.
Nancy: Oh. Well, not really.
Alex: I think it is eye-catching; it became a popular design after the XYZ artist first wore them on a stage performance. You know them, don’t you?
Nancy: I’ve only heard about them. They don’t really catch my fancy.
Alex: Oh. Wow. I personally think they’re wonderful. So who’s your favourite artist?
Nancy: I think I prefer the AB genre of music, so it’s ABC artist for me.
Alex: Great! I heard they are amazing, too. I have a neighbour who plays their full playlist every Saturday whenever they are at home. Music, to me, is a beautiful art. I love the creativity it births. Do you have any other hobbies of interest?
Nancy: Hobbies… well… I love taking photographs; I write a bit.
Alex: You do?
Nancy: Yeah, I write for a blog. A healthy lifestyle blog. But that’s not so often; about once or twice a month.
Alex: Amazing! You seem to have your passions at your fingertips. I write, too, and I love the fashion industry. I may consider applying as a writer on some fashion blogs from next month. And of course! What’s fashion without good photographs to show your creativity? I bet you wouldn’t say no to teaching me about taking quality photographs, would you?
Alex: You post your works on a portfolio? Or on social media?
Nancy: Yeah, instagram.
Alex: I would love to see your creativity in photography. May I have your IG handle?
Nancy: Yeah, check me out at…
Alex: It’s wonderful talking with you. I’m Alex by the way, and you’re?
Alex: I’d have to go now, hope to see you again. Thanks for your time; I appreciate it.
Notice how Alex made the conversation flow by asking questions, stating briefly his view then asking further questions.
However, care should be taken to avoid entering interview mode as it can make the person quite uncomfortable. And you wouldn’t want the person you’re speaking with to become all tensed and overly cautious of you.
- Ask for advice
Show them that their opinion matters and that you care to listen to it. Pick out a problem in your life and ask them for advice. You can generalize the problem if you don’t find it comfortable personalizing it.
For example, you could ask:
“What do you think about an employee speaking to their boss about a colleague who harasses them?” if you experience or know someone who experienced a similar case.
Try to listen attentively to their viewpoint but still analyze their idea afterwards before taking any major actions on it.
- Appreciate their time
As you round off the conversation, let them know that you value spending time with them and that you are grateful they chose to spend some time with you. Leave them feeling positive and maybe even eager to see you, again.
Note how, in the dialogue above, Alex ended his conversation with a thank you. That would make Nancy feel appreciated and valued. Who doesn’t want to feel that way?
A striking conclusion
Starting a conversation with people we are not so familiar with can be difficult for many. However, when you mentally kick out your fear of being rejected or embarrassed, when you show receptiveness, respect their values and genuinely show your interest in meeting with them, then speaking to them would be as easy as eating noodles with a
knife fork. 😎
Action plans for Smarter Thunders
- Prep your mind before meeting with the person. Remind yourself that they are as human as you are. Mentally inform yourself that they might act cold or switch to a who-is-this-stranger defence mode at first. But after a few seconds, they’d want to listen to what you’re saying or asking.
- Watch your gestures:
- Are you smiling or showing your frustrations through your frown?
- Are you expressing yourself with your palm or folding up like you’re hiding something?
- Are you really listening to them while they talk or fingering your phone?
- Do you often nod to show agreement and encouragement as they speak or do you interrupt with a scary blank stare?
- You only get better with practice. No practice, no improvement. So your action plan is to go out and speak with someone new. Simple. Try the a-different-person-a-day challenge (Well, if not every day, make it at least three times a week). Choose a colleague, coursemate, someone from your place of worship or a neighbour, for example, that you just greet or barely speak with and start a conversation with them. Tip: find a common interest you both have and build up from there.
- Reward yourself with a favourite snack or meal, a movie episode, a visit to a friend’s or an interesting novel anytime you have a better-than-average performance at starting a conversation at the end of the week. This motivates you to do more and also get better at starting a conversation as well.
- Share this article with AT LEAST FIVE 👋 people you know that would strike⚡ their world 🌍 smarter 🧠 and become better 📈 with this info. Trust me, you know someone who needs this.