Talking To Strangers

Have you ever had a really great conversation with a stranger?

A conversation that happened totally at random that you weren’t expecting, perhaps on a train, waiting in a queue somewhere, or sat on a park bench. If you can think of one it’s because something about it, perhaps the person you were talking to, the subject matter, or simply the fact that it was so unexpected, was memorable for you.

The fact that it was a stranger you were talking to is probably why you can remember it, because that doesn’t happen too often. We don’t do it regularly so when we do it becomes something we remember.

For me I think it’s more than that. Just because we don’t do it often isn’t the only reason we’ve remembered it. There are many things I don’t do regularly and I can barely remember what they are, let alone anything about them. Talking to a stranger is different though, I remember it happening because it meant something.

So why does it mean something, and if it does, what exactly?

Sociologists call it ‘fleeting intimacy – a brief experience that has emotional resonance and meaning’. Research has found that people often feel more comfortable being open and honest about their feelings with strangers than they do with their families, and that they often feel more understood by strangers.

When I was out cycling recently I stopped for a rest and sat on a bench by a lake. An elderly lady out walking her dog came and sat next to me. As a dog lover I said ‘hello’ and made a comment about her dog. She looked at me a little nervously as if she wasn’t comfortable talking to a stranger, and certainly not one who was dressed in lycra…. But she responded and after a pause she asked a question of her own about how far I’d come. The ice was broken and after that initial nervous few minutes we got chatting.

As the conversation continued we both started to reveal more about ourselves, our thoughts, fears and frustrations. It was probably only a 25-minute chat but in that time she learnt about my fears now I’m running my own business and how it can get a bit scary at times, why I’ve never married and don’t have children. I learnt that she had a difficult and sadly unresolved relationship with her father, why she worries about her son and daughter and that she was currently undergoing radiotherapy. Subject matters that were a long way from where we started. We learnt a lot about each other, maybe we were confident to share what we did because we didn’t think we’d see each other again, perhaps because we were so very different in age, background and life views it just made it interesting, or perhaps it was just the right time for both of us to share a moment of ‘fleeting intimacy’.

For a living I help develop engagement, helping individuals and organisations work out what it takes for them to be ‘engaging’ and to develop employee engagement to drive their business performance. One of the tools we use to do this is a profiling tool called VoicePrint, it lets you visualise and understand the way you talk, how you’re heard by others, and the impact that you have.

VoicePrint profiles how you use 9 different voices, helps you understand the impact that each can have and find out how often you use each one. For us, it links perfectly with our work with managers and leaders, helping them to understand how the ‘voice’ they use affects their ability to engage others and how this then translates to both individual and organisational performance.

As a tool it can be used to develop both individuals and relationships as it highlights blind spots in communication patterns, and reveals the missing links between what’s intended, what’s heard and why.

In the time I spent talking to the lady on the bench, I didn’t find out her name but I did find out that our VoicePrint’s were pretty closely aligned and we understood and trusted each other. We had a conversation as strangers, a conversation that didn’t have the baggage of past experience, relationships, hierarchy or expectation. It was clean, engaging, honest, authentic – everything I advocate if you’re looking to engage your employees or to ‘be’ engaging in any walk of life, as this is what people recognise, remember and value.

If you’d like us to help you understand your own VoicePrint or help your organisation clear the way to clean engaging conversations to drive engagement drop us a line.

Thanks for reading and please share, you never know it might create a conversation with a stranger…. If you’re lucky.