3 resources to help you talk to strangers

Stuck? Feeling hopeless? Unsure of your next step? For the almost two decades Idealist has been around, we’ve been asking you—our community—to tell us about the obstacles you face when trying to turn your good intentions into action. We’ve compiled a short list of the top-reported obstacles, and now we’re blogging about them one by one. This week, we present: people issues.

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“Ummm, what’s your name again?”

We’re told as kids not to talk to strangers, but as adults, an inability to do so can become problematic. It’s important to make connections with new people in all parts of our lives, whether we’re participating in community events, building our professional networks, pioneering new friendships, or trying to get a new project off the ground.

But not everyone can summon their inner social butterfly at the drop of a hat. There are a lot of ways to go about talking with strangers, and depending on your goal, awkwardness could well be seen as endearing! But if you think your game could use a little polish, consider these resources about three common social challenges:

1. Making small talk.

When it comes to making connections with new people, small talk is huge. In this The Wall Street Journal article on how to become a better conversationalist, columnist Elizabeth Bernstein explores how we can improve what experts call “conversational intelligence.”

According to Dr. Bernardo J. Carducci, director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast, there are five stages of a successful conversation practiced by those with the “gift of gab.” These stages include getting started, personal introduction, pre-topical exploration, post-topical elaboration, and wrap-up.

Throughout these stages, it’s important to focus most of your attention on the other person.

“Ask a lot of questions. People love to talk about themselves and often will think you are a great conversationalist if you talk about them and not yourself. Don’t let the conversation stall after the person has answered—be ready with follow-up questions or build on the topic.”

2. Reaching out to people you find online.

Just because you’re connected to someone online doesn’t mean you’re close IRL. But what’s the best way to reach out to someone if you’ve never actually met them in person?

In this article recently published on Forbes, leadership and career success coach Kathy Caprino offers tips for reaching out to online contacts and making those connections in person. She reminds us that whether on the web or face to face, the same rules apply:

“Be considerate of their time, and understand that building relationships online is exactly like building them in person. You wouldn’t come up to a stranger at a cocktail party and grill them with questions,” she says. “You’d ease into the situation, listen deeply first, and learn about who they are and what they care about. Then, and only then, would you respectfully pose a question or offer a comment that you know is a good fit with their passions, skills, and interests.”

3. Interacting with people in their homes.

Going door-to-door is an advanced form of talking with strangers. Although it makes some people nervous, making personal contact is one of the best ways to unite a community around an issue or campaign.

This online toolkit from Compass Point Nonprofit Services is a series of tutorials and interactive video games designed to introduce people with the basics of starting conversations when approaching a stranger in their home. It’s safe, low-risk, and available to play online for free in both English and Spanish.

Lessons include recognizing when it’s a good time to talk, breaking the ice, sharing details about yourself, listening, and following up. While of course the simulated games can’t prepare you for everything you’ll see in the real world, the toolkit offers a great (i.e. not scary) way to practice conversation before you get out there and pound the pavement.

What other tips do you have when it comes to talking with strangers? Share with us in the comments.

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