I hated medical school. Well, that might be an overstating it. I didn't even go to medical school. I hated going out to bars with my wife while she was in medical school because everyone got really drunk and talked about medical school. This was before any of our peers were married and I was the lone spouse. Mostly I drank beer and offered a courteous laugh.
Back then my social muscle wasn't well defined. I didn't know how to talk to people even though I've been talking to people my whole life. I knew how to talk to friends and family but not strangers. Think about our lives, my guess is that 95% of your conversations are with people you know and see regularly. Work, church, family, rinse, and repeat. I was the same way and hated it so it was time to change.
The idea is to get people talking about themselves. People will say anything about their hobbies, interests and history. I once spent five minutes explaining to someone's mother the importance of holding a force when going upwind in ultimate frisbee. Is that Greek to you? It was to her.
Here are five ways to talk to strangers
- Forget What do you do? Careers are great. Most people have them but are they really that interesting? Isn't most of what you do at work fairly uninteresting? I have a friend who sells airplanes to some of the most interesting people in the world, rockstars, governments, CEO's and when I asked him what he did most of the day he'll reply that he spent all day reading contracts. Lots of contracts. Instead ask about their hobbies, dreams, trips, family, funny stories, best adventures, favorite things about livings someplace. People all have these stories and they are infinitely better than what happens at work.
- Ask why a lot. Once people get started talking about themselves they will not stop. They will share all kinds of things with you and asking why is a good way to keep the conversation going. Why did you decided to go to medical school? Why did you order the wild boar in Hawaii? Why did you pursue a bear naked?
- Be comfortable with silence. Social silence, so awkward. We were at a recruitment dinner recently and on occasion our table of ten would go silent as the few conversations that were happening ended at once and it seemed like there was a big rush to move through the silence onto the next story or question. Who cares, it shouldn't be you.
- Be a detective and learn something from someone. James Altucher wrote that sometimes in social settings he imagines becoming a detective charged with learning something from each person there. You'd be surprised by how much other people know. My wife, the person I know best in the world lived for 28 years before she met me, something happened in that time. My brother has lived without me for the past 13 years, same deal. That stranger you meet has a lifetime of experiences. Find out what they are and learn something.
- Take turns sharing. Most people will run wild with stories as long as you'd like to listen but eventually they'll subconsciously notice your excellent communication skills and begin to mimic them back to you. Share and share alike.
I wish I had known these things ten years ago but what in life isn't like that. What do you and I know now that we didn't know then? The answer is everything. All we can do is make sure we don't spend another 10 years making that same mistake.