Starting a conversation with a complete stranger can generate a lot of anxiety.
I remember it well. More years ago than I would like to admit the company I worked for used to send me to networking meetings all over the world. I lived them as something very uncomfortable. A huge room with high tables with food while groups of three or four people who already knew each other chatted in small groups.
Being 22 years old and being surrounded by unknown men dressed in tie and serious expression can be intimidating. Sometimes I talked to someone who should feel more lonely than me and came to introduce themselves but often ended up spending time in a corner while checking mobile messages. I was not the only one doing this.
Fortunately, I learned a lot. Although I am still accompanied by some nervousness, now I am able to enjoy challenging myself to talk with 10 different people or with very large groups.
In future articles, I will explain how to hold interesting conversations without falling, but in this post I want to share with you the most effective techniques and attitudes of social psychology so that you start to leave behind fears and be able to start a conversation in the best possible way.
Although it took me several years to learn them, just putting some into practice you will be able to see immediate results.
We are social, although you insist on the opposite
Do you remember when you were a child? Everything was a game and if something made you nervous you used to interpret it as emotion, not as fear. Probably it was not hard for you to go to the house of the new neighbor to ask if you could get in touch with your son. Some of the best friends in my life I made them like this.
What has changed so that we now isolate ourselves and suffer from anxiety at social gatherings? Well, over the years has shown us the bitter face of society. Having been rejected on several occasions, we have learned not to expose ourselves so cheerfully.
- This has led, according to a study by the University of Chicago, to assume incorrectly that strangers do not want to talk to us. Do you remember the “Do not talk to strangers” that your mother repeated to you?
- But the reality is different. In that same study, a group of volunteers was challenged to start conversations in the subway with unknown people. They predicted that these conversations would produce anxiety and discomfort, but the result was that they felt much better talking to a stranger than being silent during the journey.
In addition, all the participants who tried to talk to someone got it. There was not a single rejection.
The moral is that we assume, incorrectly, that people do not want to talk to us. And as the stranger we have sitting next to him also believes it, the result is that no one takes the first step.
10 effective strategies to start a conversation
People usually expect to reveal to them the magic phrase that will allow them to initiate a dialogue with anyone and in any situation.
The problem is that the phrase itself is given too much importance when in reality it has none. Of course, the attitude with which you say it is much more important. And not even that: the mere fact of approaching and opening your mouth is already more than many others do.
For the most timid people, some of the following strategies have also proved very effective to start conversations.
1. Get rid of shame with the Mask technique
Although as a child was a rather quiet child, everything changed when it came a specific time of the year: Carnival. That day, dressed in a cowboy or samurai costume, I used to run, jump and play pranks with my friends, behaving in a totally wild way, opposed to my character.
During my adolescence, I verified that this transformation was repeated in the plays of the institute. When I was on stage playing my role, I dared with any situation. Today I still feel that way every time I have to give life to a character. And you can do the same.
The Mask Technique consists of creating an alter ego, a character that allows you to leave your daily reality so that you can do and say things that you would not normally do. In this way, if someone rejects you, you can be sure that he is not rejecting you, but your character.
This technique is used by actors and comedians such as Daniel Tosh to overcome his shyness on stage. Even Beyoncé has created an alter ego named Sasha for when he has to act. In both cases, extroverted and provocative characters have been invented, and when they are appropriate, they act as such.
Logically, in the long term it is much better to overcome shyness by confronting its origin, but the Mask technique is a very useful tool to start behaving more openly and sociably.
2. Never forget your real goal
This is the main reason why many people fail even before trying.
When you want to start a dialogue with someone you must be clear that your goal is not to impress, or try to fall well, or seem an interesting person. People do not know you and any of these three attempts can easily be interpreted against you.
- Your goal should only be to show yourself as a sociable and quiet person who wants to hold a conversation to see if there are points in common.
- Then you can set more specific secondary objectives, such as exchanging business cards or give the phone to stay another time, but for now, you should not think of anymore.
The moment you are clear that your goal is to find common interests to convert them into conversations, you will stop distracting yourself with other issues that actually take you out of your way.
3. Smile and the world will smile
Before articulating the first word this simple gesture can make the difference between a good or bad first impression.
At this point, we are all aware of the power to smile, but there are even studies that confirm that the simple act of nodding and smiling when you meet a stranger on the street can create a connection. Not to mention the entire collection of research that shows that smiling increases your attractiveness.
This does not mean that you force a grin of joy permanently on your face. I would not be honest and it would be very unnatural. More than just smiling is about your attitude. When you approach a conversation for the first time with someone you must do it from a positive and friendly attitude.
It shows that you come to provide energy, not to suck it. Nobody wants to hold an ash for half an hour, so from the outset, you must predispose people so they do not see you as that kind of people. Smile and the others will smile back.
Below you will find examples of phrases that, without the correct intonation and non-verbal language, can be very strange. That is why the most important point of this list is, without a doubt, this one.
4. Prepare the ground for this simple phrase
“How’s the day going?” “Hi, how are you?” “Good morning, how about everything?”
I could put many more variants, but the goal is for your interlocutor to respond that it is okay. These types of questions are especially interesting because it has been shown in a study that responding “well” your partner will be more predisposed to have a sociable behavior.
When someone responds that they are doing well or very well, they will hardly behave negatively immediately afterward. So, a good idea is that your first sentence is a simple “Hi, how are you?”.
- If the other person is doing something or just for education, the best thing will also be to start asking for permission with an “Apology” or “Forgive” . Especially when you want to enter into the conversation of a group, as it demonstrates education and that you are aware of the social situation of others.
- Asking if you can interrupt a second is another excellent idea because this study showed that it improves the willingness of your interlocutor to talk to you when trying to be consistent with their response.
5. Ask something related to the situation or place
The most natural way to start a conversation is probably to make a comment or question about the situation that you and the other person share. Not because of its simplicity is less effective and, after all, it is the only link you have before knowing you.
This way of initiating conversations also prevents shy people from suffering rejection if it occurs, since they can always justify that they just wanted to ask something.
According to Dr. Carducci, director of the Shyness Research Institute, the initial question does not have to be especially ingenious: the best phrase is simple and should only refer to the environment or situation that is shared. Ideally, an open question so that you cannot be answered with just a yes or no. Here are some examples:
- In a bar: ” Excuse me, do you know what time this site closes?”
- In a training course: “In what classroom is the next conference?”
- At the station: “Do you know when the last train leaves?”
Even if you think that some question may be too obvious, do not worry. These phrases can be interpreted as that you really need the information or that you just want to start a conversation, so it does not really matter much what you say.
6. Shows curiosity about what he is doing
This strategy is not the most appropriate if the other is not doing anything special, such as waiting at a bus station, but it can be useful in gyms, social clubs or bars.
You also expose yourself very little since you only show yourself as a curious person. It is a very safe way to start a conversation as long as your attitude is positive and not in a critical mood.
In a gym, you could ask someone who was exercising something like “Excuse me, what muscles do you strengthen with that exercise?” , In a football field, you could consult the person on your side if that which is blowing is a vuvuzela, and even in A restaurant could ask the customer at the table next to what he has ordered, with the excuse that it looks good.
7. Make a compliment and continue with a question
This option is very useful when the person you want to talk to is not doing anything particularly interesting, nor does the situation tie you in any way.
It consists of starting with a genuine compliment that predisposes the other person to behave in a friendly way with you ( likes please ), and then continue with a question that gives way to the conversation.
Some formulas that have given me very good results are to value someone’s dress, shoes or mobile phone, such as:
- “It’s a good match for that tie with the suit. Where did you buy it?”
- “I really like your hat, do you sell it in Barcelona?”
8. Ask for a recommendation, advice or opinion
This is similar to the previous one, but with nuances. For starters, several studies have shown that asking for someone’s opinion is tremendously positive to make a good first impression. Everyone likes to feel valued and one of the simplest ways to achieve this is by requesting a recommendation.
When you ask someone for the advice you are implicitly demonstrating that you value their judgment, and that is flattering. Logically if you do not know the person your interest should not be too deep.
- “Excuse me, what phone is that? I’m thinking of buying a new one. “
- “Excuse me, I’ve seen that you’re reading Murakami’s last book. Would you recommend it to me? “
- “Hi, if you come here often, would you mind giving me a dish that was okay?”
The idea is that you take advantage of the situation and context of the person with whom you want to speak to ask for a recommendation and from there develop a conversation.
9. Fill in the information gaps
So far we have seen quite indirect ways to start a conversation, but the best of all is the explicit sincerity.
Being sincere in an explicit way is nothing more than filling in the gaps of information. This is achieved by giving a what, a why and a why. The reason is that often the information we provide is not complete, which causes our interlocutors to fill it with their imagination. And that does not always work in our favor.
Note the difference:
Hello what’s your name?
Here you do not give any information, and your interlocutor can imagine what he wants. Maybe you think you want to flirt with him/her, or that you have recognized him/her but do not remember your name, or that you want to call him / her attention for some reason. You do not control what your interlocutor will think of you.
Hi, I’m trying to meet new people instead of talking to the same old people. Do you mind if I show up and we know each other?
In this case, you clearly say what you want (introduce yourself), why you want it (because you always talk to them) and what you want it for (to meet new people). You do not allow for any incorrect interpretation.
Being honest about what you want and making it obvious from the outset is probably the most natural way to start a conversation with strangers. It requires practice, but once mastered the chances of rejection are really low.
10. Give an exit and avoid rejection
Finally, another way to reduce the chances of the other person telling you that he is not good at talking now is to provide an easy way out.
Often people get defensive when a stranger approaches them because they are not sure if it will be too heavy and they fear not being able to get rid of it for a long time.
To avoid that your interlocutor invades this thought, give it yourself the way out. This means that at the beginning of the conversation mentions that you can only speak for a short period of time because they are waiting for you in another place. This frees you from the feeling of being stuck with you and gives you both a comfortable way out in case things do not go well.
Also, when people think you have to leave early, they relax. If you approach someone in a bar and say “Hi, I’d like to meet you” their defenses are activated. Who are you? What do you want? and when are you leaving? are the three questions that assail him. By filling in the information gaps you answer the first two, but you must also be able to answer the last one.
Hello, I’m waiting for some friends and since you also seem to be waiting I was wondering if I can sit with you for 5 minutes until they come. Do you mind?
If the conversation is going well, do not worry that nobody will remember the 5 minutes you mentioned at the beginning 🙂
Nothing is infallible
In future articles, you will see how to maintain a fluent conversation without those uncomfortable moments of silence, but today I wanted to show you the most effective ways to start conversations. However, nothing is infallible.
Why can it fail
With these tools, the most usual thing will be that you succeed, but there is no perfect formula and everyone can have a bad day. Unfortunately, many people are not aware that, when it is not well received by another person, often the reason has nothing to do with themselves.
- Maybe the other person had a bad day, maybe you are the tenth person who approaches you and is already tired, or you might be waiting for someone in a bad mood. The reasons are endless, so it ‘s a waste of time trying to understand them.
- It can also fail once the conversation started because you simply do not have too many points in common, or because (and this is much more common than you think) your interlocutor is not a great conversationalist and needs to improve their own social skills.
Practice, practice, and practice
Conversational skills can be improved. No one is born with them and all of us in one way or another is learning them, whether from our parents, brothers or friends.
How to learn them later is difficult because rejections tend to affect more, ideally, you should start practicing in situations where there are no consequences, such as with your hairdresser, taxi drivers or delivery drivers. These people are paying to be there and attend to you well, so it’s a good idea to take practice in those environments.
There are no better or worse ways to start a conversation, and of course, there are no good or bad phrases. Although in this article you have seen the general concepts, the key is, to be honest and use body language and intonation that generate closeness.
Do not look for perfection to start dialogues or you will lose many opportunities. Nobody expects you to be perfect doing it because your interlocutor also knows the effort involved.
You can be more fun, formal, deep or welcoming, but the important thing is that you are something. Trying to talk to someone and being rejected is an absolute success compared to standing still in a corner lamenting for another lost opportunity.
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