Overcoming Silence -How to Engage with Strangers Effectively

March 07, 2021

I often find it difficult to speak up when I'm in the presence of strangers. During company meetings involving senior management and various stakeholders, many of my colleagues join the virtual call. At the end of these meetings, our director often asks if anyone has any questions. More often than not, silence ensues. Even in informal gatherings, the situation doesn’t improve; the boss usually monopolizes the conversation, sharing anecdotes without anyone daring to interrupt him. As a leader, I know I should speak up, but finding the right words can be a challenge.

2021 03 07

This reticence to speak out has historical roots. In ancient China, if a government official said something that displeased the Emperor, the immediate response was often execution—of the official and his family. This historical context has led to a culture that advises caution when speaking within social hierarchies. However, this mindset is not appropriate in a startup environment, where feedback is essential for informed decision-making at the top levels. If I remain too reserved and overly polite around strangers, I won't develop into a better leader.

To address this, my first step is to exercise empathy. Strangers may also be hesitant to speak because they fear judgment. If I put myself in their shoes, I realize they are likely just as uncomfortable with the silence. By offering appreciation or asking insightful questions, I can show that I am actively listening, thus encouraging a more open dialogue. A warm smile, small talk, and genuine compliments can also make me appear more approachable, which in turn can make strangers more comfortable around me. It's a reciprocal relationship: a positive atmosphere requires active participation from both parties.

Finally, I aim to improve my communication skills by engaging strangers in conversation. This includes asking questions to involve them, offering comments to keep the conversation flowing, and using humor or storytelling to ease any tension.

To overcome my struggle with being overly quiet, I've committed to enhancing my communication skills. Writing has been a valuable tool for me to refine my English and organize my thoughts, thus preparing me for conversations with strangers. To have meaningful discussions, I need to continually challenge myself to step out of my comfort zone and engage with new experiences and ideas. Living a monotonous life limits my conversational topics, which doesn't add value to interactions with others. If you're not well-read or curious, you won't have fresh perspectives or independent opinions to bring into discussions. Thus, continuous learning is essential for genuinely engaging with people.

In conclusion, the journey to becoming more communicative and less reserved in social settings is ongoing. The more I engage positively with strangers, the more confident I'll become for future interactions. And who knows? We might just be surprised at how much we can learn from one another.

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Victor Leung, who blog about business, technology and personal development. Happy to connect on LinkedIn