It is rare that I am not asked how people can get to know each other better or more quickly, mostly from people who want to meet their life partner as well as those who want to network more effectively. I don’t know if you have ever given it much thought, but it seems to me that inquisitiveness is simply part of being human. If that weren’t the case, why do millions of people watch the endless number of reality shows on TV? Scrutinizing the lives of people around us satisfies a profound yearning or at times, just frivolous curiosity, but it can indeed be satisfying. It’s one of the reasons that so many of us enjoy chitchatting with strangers when we’re thrust together by chance. Research is beginning to indicate not only where that curiosity comes from, but also how you can best satisfy that yearning.
In Canada, the University of Waterloo’s M. Mahdi Roghanizad and Cornell University’s Vanessa Bohns, explored the role of in-person vs. email-based communication in interpersonal persuasion. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that they discovered that email isn’t as persuasive a medium as you might think. The authors point out that there is something about those face-to-face exchanges that you won’t find in emails, no matter how personal you think you’re being when you compose it. In face-to-face communication, Roghanizad and Bohns note it’s hard to say “no” to a person, in person; “it feels bad to let someone down.” Unlike emails, in-person interactions rely heavily on trust, which stimulates empathy in the listener.
Scrutinizing the lives of people
around us satisfies a
profound yearning or at
times, just frivolous
curiosity, but it can indeed be satisfying.
So when you want to meet or talk with people, don’t be shocked to learn that establishing trust is key for the other person to feel that it’s okay to tell you about themselves. As trust and empathy go hand in hand, you also want them to feel that you care about what they are experiencing in the situation you are sharing together. Keep in mind that it’s not just boredom or curiosity that are the key to getting strangers to open up to you. It is genuine interest.
There are lots of times when it can be helpful to get new information from the people you meet. You might learn how to better manage the situation you are in, such as whether those Macy’s coupons you’ve missed out on can be downloaded on your smartphone, saving you a couple of bucks. You might also learn something interesting that you didn’t know about some place you’ve always wanted to visit. Learning about someone’s emotional troubles can also be helpful if you learn something that allows you to better cope in your own life. You just never know, do you?
In these situations, remember your mom’s advice about you learning more from the other person as compared to what they learn about you. We all have heard it said that people who meet on vacation say or do anything because “I’ll never see them again.” But remember, the rule of “six degrees of separation.” You never know who other people might know and describing bad habits or stories about your personal life can lead to problems when you get home. Even gossiping about someone from your hometown or workplace can lead, embarrassingly, to the subject of your comments. The things you say can circle around and catch up with you as though the words had a mind of their own.
Learning about someone’s
emotional troubles can
also be helpful if you
learn something that
allows you to better cope in your own life.
There are indeed circumstances when it’s important to get someone else to open up to you. Getting people to open up is also a useful skill in establishing close relationships. If you’re not sure that this new individual is a person with whom you want to have that relationship, it’s safer to keep the balance of disclosure tilted away from you, learning more than you share and helping you decide whether to move forward with the relationship.
In spite of what your mom said about not talking to strangers, it really can offer all kinds of benefits. For all you know, you might form a solid connection—whether it’s just an exchange of emails or “friending” on Facebook—leading to a relationship that continues for life. You might find that person is someone who you really want to, and do, get to know better. As I mentioned earlier, you can also learn a great deal from people who come from various countries and cultures around the world.
Getting people to open up, then, means that at least initially, they give you information unequally compared to what you say about yourself. Here are five things to remember:
1. Pay close attention to what the person tells you at the start of the conversation. It could be simply their name that leads to interesting clues. An unusual first name, or something that you overhear about where the person is from gives you a start. Even though what you learn may be generic and harmless, it just might form the basis for where you’re going next.
2. Build a connection and use it to continue the conversation: “I had a best friend named Susan,” or “Oh, I heard that you’re from Stowe, Vermont. I’ve been there a couple of times.” Or, if you’re both suffering from the same unpleasant condition, you can comment on your shared misery. Let out a little information about yourself, but only enough to keep things going.
3. Don’t ever make assumptions. A stranger sitting next to you at a reasonably formal dinner may be in inappropriate dress. You wonder how they got there because they clearly don’t fit in to the crowd. Before you blow them off, focus on maintaining a generally friendly and open demeanor. For all you know, they didn’t know what the dress rules were or are actually wealthy, high-status, and/or nice enough to just not care. For all you know they own the place.
4. Ask good questions without being nosy or intrusive. Using the data you have in front of your eyes—which could be anything you see or hear them say—start with general questions that you hope will lead to more specific information. If it’s an informal situation, keep your questions to what feels like a comfortable number in the context of where you are, i.e., don’t get into a game of 20 questions.
5. Figure out when to back off. At some point the other person might get tired of chatting, or just not want to answer a question. Remember it’s possible that your question might just be too challenging. If you get that kind of response, back off; the person is likely uncomfortable talking about the answer to the question, so let the matter rest and switch gears.
When you think about how many times in our day we are in situations with people we don’t know, it’s easier than you think to practice your skills of getting to know people in this way. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll find many more opportunities to fulfill not only your sense of curiosity, but enjoyable connections you can keep forever. Who knows, one of them might change the course of your life.
SPEAK WITH A LIFE COACH IN BATON ROUGE
Frank Hopkins is a life coach in Baton Rouge who is certified as a Professional Coach (CPC) by the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching (iPEC). Frank has helped numerous people to go through emotional change in a way that is positively transformative.