We talk a lot in church about the need for fellowship and a sense of community among the members. We talk a lot about reaching out into nearby neighborhoods and meeting felt needs. What we don’t talk about is the most important thing we need in order to make those things happen.
Friends were coming to our home for lunch and it was my turn to cook. What to serve? That morning I thumbed through the pages of two cookbooks but none of the recipes jumped out at me.
Exasperated, I chose to serve an old favorite. We had made this delicious entrée so often that I decided to go by memory. At 12:30 p.m., the doorbell rang in the middle of my prep, so I hurriedly tossed the ingredients into a glass casserole dish and shoved it into the 375-degree oven.
It always took exactly an hour to bake. Meanwhile we chatted with our guests as my wife and I completed the side dishes and salad.
Sixty minutes later, at 1:30 p.m., I checked my masterpiece. Looked kinda watery. Huh… ought to be done by now. “It needs to cook a little more,” I explained.
1:35 p.m. — Still looked watery. I took a wooden spoon and stirred it. “Oh no!” I thought. I could feel the redness in my face go from pastel to beet.
It was a rice dish and I’d forgotten the rice.
Likewise, there’s often a main ingredient missing when it comes to church fellowship and outreach. That vital ingredient is how to converse with strangers. Research indicates that meeting strangers is one of people’s biggest fears, right up there with public speaking, snakes, and gigantic hairy spiders. But if you don’t create relationships beyond your own little group in church, you won’t expand the circle of fellowship. If you don’t meet strangers in society, you won’t accomplish much outreach. No rice, no meal.
I’m mostly introverted, so for many years I was very uncomfortable meeting people for the very first time. My brain used to shout, “Oh no! What are you gonna say after you say ‘Hello’! You’re sssoooo boring, at least the person won’t hang around very long.”
I used to figure I was consigned to a life of social awkwardness and anxiety. But then I saw a book all about how to talk to people you never met before! I couldn’t believe it. You mean so many people have my problem that there’s a whole book written about it? I immediately felt better and devoured the book. I’ve since read several others like it and tried to incorporate many of their ideas and tips into my life. I’m certainly not a great conversationalist, but for the first time I understand much better how conversation works.
Jesus turned conversing with strangers into an art form. He must have had any easy, relaxed, confident way about Him that made others feel comfortable, especially those who had trashed their lives. He must have had a way of talking with people that they found thoroughly engaging. I longed to emulate such a vital godly skill. For Christians, workshops on how to converse well with people you don’t know should be standard fare. Basic. Fundamental. Essential.
Here are a few points I have found helpful.
Lesson #1 — Conversation and meeting strangers is a skill.
You can learn it like any other skill. Just like we aren’t born knowing how to make vegetable lasagna or do math, people aren’t born with good conversational skills either.
Extraverts appear to have been born with those skills built in because they’re so chatty. But that doesn’t make them good conversationalists. There is a big difference. “Chatty” is just talking… a lot. Good conversation involves a more meaningful, two-way exchange. Turns out that introverts and extraverts both need help.
Lesson #2 — Get the name right.
This is the hardest part for me.
We miss the name because we’re fretting about what we’re going to say next. So determine that you have only one initial mission — get the name. Don’t be afraid to ask them to repeat it if it didn’t register. For unusual names ask if you’re pronouncing it right. Then, try to use their name in a sentence right away, like, “Great to meet you ____________.” Mentally connect it to an image. For “Manny” picture him eating a manhole cover. The sillier the better.
Lesson #3 — Plan ahead of time what to use as an opener when you meet a stranger.
No, it’s not cheating to plan what you’re going to say right after the initial “How are you?” Create your own openers and memorize them ahead of time. Test them out. One of my own favorite opening lines is, “So, what’s been the best part of your day/week so far?” At times I also use, “So, were you born here in Florida?” (Caution — you have to actually be in Florida to use that one!)
You can also tailor the opener to particular situations. For instance, if you are going to a baseball game, you can read up a little bit about the teams and come up with something like, “I understand this pitching crew might get them to the World Series.” Or, if it’s a couple’s anniversary: “So how do you think people stay married for 40 years?” If you are attending a convention: “What’s been your favorite break out session so far? Why?” Planning ahead lowers anxiety, a lot.
Lesson #4 — Value small talk.
I used to think that “small talk” was a waste of time. If we’re going to spend time talking, let’s get right to the weighty stuff. Turns out small talk is simply a way of saying, “I’d like to get to know you better.” It can be a bridge into something a little deeper, but it is certainly meaningful all by itself. The weather will do just fine or the outrageous price of pomegranates. Whatever. Just be sure to hear and appreciate the deeper intention.
Lesson #5 — Ask people about themselves.
This is a big winner. Most people love to talk about themselves. Awhile back my wife and I were visited by a couple we hadn’t seen since college, decades before. We served dinner at our home and spent two and a half hours listening to every little detail of their marvelous, incredible, exciting, fulfilling lives since our undergrad years.
At the end of that long, one way session, they said, “Oh my, look how late it is. We simply must be going.” [Pause]. “Hey, why don’t you guys take five minutes and fill us in on what you’ve been up to?” All too typical.
So tap into that dynamic and make it work for you. Probe their life gently. Everyone has something they feel passionately about. Find it and you’re golden.
Actually, the less you know about a subject the better! Tell them, “I don’t know anything about that but it sounds very interesting…” Then ask away.
Lesson #6 — Follow a mental conversational road map.
One map that I often use is F.O.R.T. which stands for Family, Occupation, Relaxation, and Travel. When your mind draws a blank regarding what to talk about, you can fall back on this tried and true formula. “Tell me about your family?” “So what do you do for work?” “Sounds stressful, what do you do to relax?” “Have you had a chance to travel out of state recently?”
Lesson #7 — Listen deeply.
Good listening skills are a rarity. Zero in and give the person your full attention. I mean FULL. Don’t look around or over their shoulder. Don’t look up or down. I’m not suggesting that you stare like a Zombie, but stay focused both physically and mentally.
Listen for the words but also the feeling behind the words. Watch the body language. The movement in the face. Volume. Pick up cues. “When you say that it seems like there is a lot of emotion behind it.”
Don’t pontificate. Be open minded. Come as a humble learner. As Bill Nye said, “Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t.”
Lesson #8 — Build on what they’re telling you.
So if you ask, “Have you been traveling lately?” and the person replies, “Sure have. My wife, our two daughters, and I took a trip to California to see my wife’s ailing mother. Our plane had to be diverted to Denver for a medical emergency. But we got there OK.” He could have answered your question with a simple “Yes, we went to California.” But instead he just gave you a ton of extra information to ask about — wife, two daughters, ailing mother, medical emergency, diverted to Denver, etc.
Then when he answers your next question he’ll probably give you more extra information to ask about. And on and on. You don’t even have to think up stuff yourself. It can come as a gift.
By the way, generally speaking, questions that begin with Why, How, and What are far better fuel for conversation than When, Who, and Where. Focus on open-ended questions that require more than one-word answers.
Lesson #9 — Recognize what level of conversation you are having.
There are basically four. A is the surface level and D is the deepest and most personal.
a. Cliche. This is where small talk fits in. It is surface talk about the weather, etc., where connections usually begin.
b. Reporting. This is exchanging facts with the other person about events and experiences, from major to minor. “I was in a car accident last week.”
c. Ideas. Here you are sharing what you think about things. It lets the other person inside your head to some degree as you share opinions.
d. Feelings. This is heart to heart talk and the most personal. For instance, you might start by reporting that you are going for a job interview next week. Then, when you add, “And I’m scared stiff,” you have moved much deeper and revealed a lot more about yourself.
Not all conversations need to go beyond levels A and B, but the deeper you go the
more meaningful it becomes. Just don’t force it.
Conversations that actually get to D will be in the minority. The ideal conversation continually moves up and down among all levels.
Lesson #10 — Don’t get down on yourself when some conversations turn out to be a dud.
Everyone has conversational flops. No big deal. Choose to persist just like you would in learning any new skill. Treat it like an adventure. Try deliberately walking into new situations and then evaluating afterward. How did it go? What can I learn?
Remember, it’s not all up to you! Conversation is a two-way street and there is a very good chance the other person doesn’t know about these ten points! Finally, don’t forget that not everyone you meet is a candidate for conversation anyway.
So take time to learn and practice and you’ll expand your world for Jesus.
Look, here comes a stranger now! Keep calm. I think you have an idea what to do.
Notes & References:
Kim Johnson retired in 2014 as the Undertreasurer of the Florida Conference. He and his wife Ann live in Maitland, Florida. Kim has written a number of articles for SDA journals plus three books published by Pacific Press: The Gift, The Morning, and The Team. He has also written three sets of small group lessons for churches that can be viewed at www.transformyourchurch.com (this website is run by the Florida Conference of Seventh-day Adventists). He is also the author of eight "Life Guides" on CREATION Health.
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