how to open

three strangers

Anyone who knows me at all, or who has read much of anything I’ve written, knows that I am passionate about and committed to engaging with the people around us in everyday life – seeing them as real people rather than as background props on our stage, objects in our way, or machines designed only to tend to our needs and desires. (For a couple of recent posts with stories about cool interactions with strangers, click HERE or HERE.)

My friend Chad believes and lives this, as well.  In fact, he’s started a whole company with this central goal in mind. I was recently referring someone to a TedX talk Chad gave. In this short talk, Chad illustrates the value of taking positive social risks. In an effort to keep things from sounding too “pie in the sky,” he mentions a specific personal incident illustrating the point that not every positive social risk we take with people ends with shared laughter and intriguing conversation.

I agree with Chad.  I myself have engaged with strangers only to have them turn away and ignore me, or relay that they didn’t quite trust me or thought I must be leading into some sort of scam.  But I can honestly tell you that I can’t remember the specifics of even one of those encounters. What this tells me, as I think about it now, is that the emotional consequences of “rejection” at my well-meaning attempts to connect – weren’t by any means serious or long-lasting.

On the other hand, what I do remember are the hundreds of really terrific interactions I’ve had because of taking a chance and talking with a stranger.

I’ve learned a lot I wouldn’t otherwise have known.

I’ve gained perspective I wouldn’t otherwise have had.

I’ve passed what would otherwise have been long, tedious hours quickly.

I’ve even made some real and lasting friendships I wouldn’t otherwise have had.

What this tells me is that the gains of taking these risks far outweigh any downsides. But, even for those who may be convinced and willing to try all this out, you may find yourself stuck for how to open – what to say around that lump in your throat to get the conversation started, as you consider talking to that person beside you on the train (or plane, or in that waiting room, or in that long check-out line).

Business people have much to say about how to “close” with people. I’d like to suggest a couple of easy ways to open.

Most often, if you will be traveling beside someone for any length of time, a smile and simple introduction usually does the trick: “Hi, I’m Erik.”  Most people are relieved to let go of the awkwardness of rubbing elbows with a complete stranger for the next hour or more.  I will tell you that I always introduce myself to strangers traveling beside me, and they have always responded in kind, by introducing themselves.

Another great lead-in (or even conversation “continuer”) is just to point out something you notice. I’ll give a few examples.

Recently, my 90-year-old grandmother wound up in the hospital needing open-heart surgery. Our family is a large one and, even during serious or stressful times, they tend to be … well, boisterous. As aunts and cousins and siblings took over the waiting room outside the ICU, I noticed one lone soul – a young man – sitting alone in one of the remaining chairs. It occurred to me that being the only “man out” might be uncomfortable, amongst this large tribe of loud family taking over the place. And remembering that someone he cared about was also in the ICU, I sat down beside him, smiled and said, “Hi, I’m Erik.” He looked over at me sheepishly and said, “Hey, I’m Jeremy.”  I responded, “I noticed you sitting here alone and thought my loud family might seem a bit much for you, so I figured I’d introduce myself in hopes that you wouldn’t feel left out.” At this, Jeremy grinned genuinely. I followed with, “Well, here we are in an ICU. My grandmother is awaiting heart surgery. Who are you here for?”  Jeremy told me that his girlfriend has some pretty serious seizures and was undergoing testing.  Before long, other members of my family were talking with Jeremy and he was asking if he might borrow a phone charger. Over the next several days, we had many opportunities to have good (and even encouraging) conversations with Jeremy.

On my plane ride home from North Carolina yesterday, a tall guy who looked to be a college student sat down beside me.  As he struggled to get himself situated in the small seat, I turned to him and said, “I always wish I had longer legs – until I get on a plane.”  He shook his head, laughed and said, “Tell me about it!” And as easy as that, the ice was broken.

Noticing something is pretty simple, once you get the hang of it (and I usually follow with a short, related question):

“I noticed you’ve been sitting here for a while without talking to anyone. Did you come with someone?”

“I see a lot of the things in your cart are organic foods. What benefits have you noticed?”

“I can’t quite place your accent, but it doesn’t sound local. Are you from around here?”

The more you make noticing a goal, the easier this kind of opening becomes. And I believe, like me, you’ll find that this simple type of engagement will result in many worthwhile and memorable moments for you. What’s more, it keeps us from being inward focused or egocentric (“me-centered”), which can lead to selfishness, entitlement, negative thought patterns and even depression.

There are hundreds of new stories, perspectives, insights and lessons waiting for us in the people we encounter every day. Just a small effort can allow us to exchange small lives for more enjoyable and rewarding ones.

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