When I’m asked to give a speech in a place I’ve never been, it’s always an interesting and growth-producing experience. It almost always starts with me getting on an airplane and sitting next to a complete stranger. Sometimes there is good conversation, cards are exchanged, and the flight seems shorter. Other times, there is only a little chitchat, and even more rarely, there’s no conversation at all, just a silent struggle over who gets the armrest.
Once I’ve landed and made my way to the hotel, there is usually a “meet-the-speaker” dinner. The one person I will know (but most likely have never actually met) is the person who hired me. So here I am in a room full of strangers all wondering to themselves, “Who is this guy and does he have anything worth saying?”
The truth is that I feel the same way. Although many would describe me as an extrovert, I am actually a shy one. In a roomful of people I don’t know and who expect me to be Dr. Personality, getting introduced, shaking hands, and making a little small talk can be a daunting task.
After I give my speech the next morning, it’s a whole different story. Then everyone knows me, and many will have questions and comments, which makes having a conversation so much easier. But before that happens, I have to find ways to talk with these folks, making them feel at ease and perhaps even interested in what I have to say.
In situations like this, it helps to have good interviewing skills. Asking the right questions is a great way to help people open up and feel good about meeting you. When you ask people about themselves, they are usually more than willing to share. Most people appreciate it when you show an interest in their lives.
Another way to garner a good introduction and a little conversation with a stranger is to tell a story. Good storytelling is a powerful way to connect with others. The other person gets to respond to the story you’ve told or perhaps to offer his or her own story in response. Before you know it, someone has to leave, but you’ve had a good conversation and connected with a new person.
Talking with people you don’t know isn’t that hard. You don’t have to be a great conversationalist. You just have to be willing to risk rejection, hold out your hand, and say, “Great to meet you. Have you ever noticed . . . ?” and then tell the other person your best story or something you’ve recently discovered. The topic doesn’t matter; it’s your willingness to engage that will open the lines of communication. Of course, this also means giving the other person a chance to share his or her experiences.
Talking with people whom you don’t know is a skill that most anyone can develop. You can practice with people you already know and then see how it goes at your next networking event, meeting, or party. Just remember that most people enjoy talking about the good parts of their lives, so keep it positive.
Dr. Barton Goldsmith, a psychotherapist in Westlake Village, is the author of “The Happy Couple: How to Make Happiness a Habit One Little Loving Thing at a Time.” Follow his daily insights on Twitter at @BartonGoldsmith, or email him at Barton@bartongoldsmith.com.