I was asked a question by a fellow blogger recently in the comments section of one of my recent "Talking to strangers" entries*.
"How can you just strike up good conversation with strangers? I mean, I just want to be able to do it with the people I know that I don't speak to as frequently. What makes good conversation? What makes a good interlocutor?"
Good question. A really good answer would be book sized and beyond my abilities so here's a few ideas I use when talking to people both face to face and in my job as a talkshow host. All these things are worth googling.
People spend most of their lives in conversation with themselves. People are more comfortable talking to someone who looks like them than someone who doesn't. This is where the body language skill of mirroring comes into play. The basic idea is that you slightly copy the posture of the person to whom you are attempting to converse with. This tricks their mind into thinking that you're 'on the same wavelength'.
Although it's slightly more complex than that broadly mirroring is by far one of the most effective techniques I use when striking up conversations with strangers.
Making people inclined to think you're 'on their wavelength' is useful in all sorts of social circumstances and mirroring is something most people do naturally. Being aware of it is useful but be wary of using it inappropriately. For example, mirroring your boss can have very negative consequences. They think they are your superior so if you copy their actions they might see it as a threat.
There are three thought methods, according to practicioners of neuro linguistic programming: visual, audio and kinetic. People can use all three but usually have a preference. Most people (around 50% in the UK) "see" things first, or are visual. A smaller proportion of us prefer to "hear" things and an even smaller chunk (around 15%) prefer to "feel" their thoughts.
This is a large area of thought (much of it unproven) which people can get quite overexcited about. However, I've found it is worthwhile to wait for the clues people give off in their phrasing, as to their prefered thought type, and then mimick it.
For example, I will re-write the previous sentence in a manner that demonstrates the three different thought types.
However, I've found it is worthwhile to look for the clues people display in their phrasing, as to their prefered thought type, and then mimick it.
However, I've found it is worthwhile to listen to the clues people give off in their phrasing, as to their prefered thought type, and then mimick it.
However, I've found it is worthwhile to pick up on the clues people use in their phrasing, as to their prefered thought type, and then mimick it.
Notice that a visual thinker will use expressions such as "I want to see the bigger picture" or "can you see what I'm talking about" etc. Just as an audio will in turn say "I want to hear as many different ideas as I can" or "do you hear what I'm saying" etc. And a kinetic, "I want to get to grips with the wider issue" and "can you get a handle on what I'm talking about" etc.
There's a whole lot more to this, I was given a book on it once by someone who is very high up in a big company and it blew my mind. The book itself was written in house and I had to return it once I'd absorbed it all. My suggestion is to google it but don't get too sucked into the cult of NLP, a lot of it is unproven.
Let them lead
All my conversations with strangers are led by the stranger. I never take much of a lead outside of a few brief thoughts and a smile. I'm very cautious not to get drawn into a situation with a potential nutter and try to start more conversations than I manage by a ratio of at least 3-1. With that in mind I don't want to end up being the nutter in the equation either so if they don't bite I just leave it.
The point of the exercise for me is to see what people react to. It's useful in my job and has turned out to be good fun.
Any readers got any other suggestions? Pop em in the comments section.
* Talking to strangers #3 is here.
The questioner, The Blazing Snow, has a blog and wrote a post about this subject here.