How to talk to people you don’t know

It only occurred to me recently that I’ve worked in jobs that revolve around people for all of my working life. My first job since leaving University was selling cameras in Jessops and then moving up into retail management.  Since then I’ve worked for the same organisation, first in a customer service role processing seafarers’ certificates, then in Press and PR, and now in Learning and Development.  If I had to describe where I want to take my career in future, it would be in a role centred around the ‘people’ stuff – employee engagement, talent, leadership, and so on – essentially making an organisation a better place to work.  I’m not sure I ever would have envisaged that this is the route my career would take some years ago, as up until my role in PR I found it quite difficult to talk to people and, honestly, I was quite awkward socially.  Being in situations with lots of people I didn’t know was my worst nightmare and I avoided making telephone calls, asking for help in shops or any situation where I might expose myself as being completely hopeless at talking to people.

I’ve spoken before about how working in the Press Office helped me exponentially.  All of a sudden I was being sent off to places around the country to attend meetings, having to speak to journalists in the middle of night, being interviewed on the radio and doing all kinds of things that made me utterly petrified, but also made me realise afterwards were really not that big a deal.  I’m not brilliant now, but I’m a lot better than I used to be.  There are a few things I try and remember when going into a situation where I have to talk to someone, or a group of people, I don’t know.  I thought if I shared them here they might help other people who, like me, haven’t always been great at the art of conversation

1. M a k e   t h e m   f e e l   l i k e   t h e y ‘ r e   t h e   o n l y   p e r s o n   i n   t h e   r o o m

img credit: unknown

This is a fairly obvious one, but something I’ve always stayed true to.  For me, being fully engaged and invested in the conversation is a no-brainer and it’s very difficult to maintain a conversation with someone who constantly checks their phone or the time.  Maintain eye-contact, smile and repeat things back to them to show you’re listening and interested.

2.  W h e n   y o u   c a n ‘ t   t h i n k   o f   a n y t h i n g   t o   s a y ,   a s k   q u e s t i o n s

Caitlin Moran summed this up brilliantly in her recent article ‘my posthumous advice to my daughter‘.  She says: ““Whenever you can’t think of something to say in a conversation, ask people questions instead. Even if you’re next to a man who collects pre-Seventies screws and bolts, you will probably never have another opportunity to find out so much about pre-Seventies screws and bolts, and you never know when it will be useful.” Always try and listen more than you talk.

3.  B e   c u r i o u s 

This links to the last point.  I love having conversations with people who have amassed interesting stories, thoughts and ideas.  This usually comes with curiosity and having interest in the things around you – watching the news, reading, travelling, making things, learning new things, and so on.  I love it when I talk to someone I don’t know and end up learning a new fact or anecdote to tell.

img credit: martin hricko

4. P r a c t i c e

The best way to get better at talking to people you don’t know, is to practice.  Indeed, the more you put yourself in uncomfortable situations, the more comfortable you will feel.  You have to open yourself up to the possibility of awkward situations, but it will be worth it.  Everyone has something to offer in a conversation, and learning how to draw it out is a skill that has to be learned and practiced. 

5. I f  a l l  e l s e  f a i l s,  w e a t h e r

If all else fails, talk about the weather.  It’s a British classic – especially this time of year all you need to say to fill an awkward silence is, “Gosh it’s COLD isn’t it?”

For a long time, my lack of confidence stopped me from pursuing all kinds of opportunities, and finding ways to feel comfortable in potentially uncomfortable situations has opened up so many avenues for me and made me feel much happier and content.  I still find it hard, but my best tip is just to take a deep breath, and go for it.

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