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Hello, Stranger: Overcoming the Fear of New Conversations

Five steps for talking to new people without feeling "stranger stress."

Key points

  • Recent research shows that many people are anxious about initiating new conversations with strangers.
  • Engaging in meaningful conversations is a skill that can enrich you professionally and personally.
  • Recommendations include greeting strangers with positivity, using effective icebreakers and active listening.
Moose Photos/Pexels
Source: Moose Photos/Pexels

The art of having a good conversation with a total stranger might seem like a lost skill in our increasingly digital and disconnected social landscape, but it's not dead yet. The ability to connect with new people can enrich our lives in numerous ways, from forming new friendships to expanding our professional networks. Engaging in meaningful conversations with strangers not only broadens our horizons but also fosters empathy and understanding in our diverse society.

Recent research on relationship formation found that many conversations are avoided because starting one is simply too difficult. Here are five key steps to help you have a good conversation with someone you don't know.

Step 1: Approach With Openness

The first step in having a good conversation with a stranger is to approach them with an open and positive mindset. Your attitude plays a crucial role in shaping the outcome of the interaction. When you approach someone with genuine curiosity and a friendly demeanor, you are more likely to create a welcoming atmosphere.

Tip: Maintain good posture, maintain eye contact, and offer a warm smile when initiating a conversation. These non-verbal cues signal your approachability and set a positive tone.

Academic research, such as the broaden-and-build theory, highlights the importance of positive affect in social interactions by suggesting that positive emotions broaden our thought-action repertoire, enabling us to explore new ideas and build meaningful connections. So, when you approach a stranger with a positive attitude, you not only make the conversation more enjoyable but also increase the likelihood of forming a lasting connection.

Step 2: Start With a Genuine Icebreaker

Breaking the ice is often the most challenging part of conversing with strangers. However, a well-chosen icebreaker can set the stage for a meaningful conversation. Instead of relying on clichéd questions like, "What do you do for a living?" or "Where are you from?" consider starting with a more personal and genuine approach.

Tip: Ask open-ended questions that invite the other person to share something about themselves, such as, "What's something you're passionate about?" or "What's the best book you've read recently?"

Starting with open-ended questions encourages the other person to share something meaningful, providing you with insight into their interests and values. This approach not only makes the conversation more engaging but also demonstrates your genuine interest in getting to know them.

Not long ago, someone started their conversation with me by asking me to name my favorite psychologist. I was a bit caught off guard at first, but then I really enjoyed the rest of our talk. Apparently, he was as tired as I was about the usual get-to-know-you small talk.

Step 3: Practice Active Listening

Effective communication is a two-way street, and active listening is the key to being a good conversationalist. When you actively listen, you show respect for the other person's perspective and create a sense of validation. Active listening involves not just hearing the words spoken but also understanding the emotions and intentions behind them.

Tip: To practice active listening, maintain eye contact, nod in agreement or understanding, and ask follow-up questions to delve deeper into the conversation.

Psychological studies emphasize the importance of active listening in building rapport and trust. By demonstrating that you value and respect the other person's viewpoint, you create a space for genuine and meaningful dialogue. Remember, a conversation is not just about speaking; it's also about truly hearing and understanding the other person.

Step 4: Find Common Ground

One of the most effective ways to connect with a stranger is to find common ground. While each person is unique, we all share common experiences, interests, or values that can serve as bridges to deeper conversations.

Tip: Look for shared hobbies, experiences, or even challenges. For example, if you discover a shared interest in hiking, you can explore favorite trails or swap hiking stories.

Research on social attraction suggests that people are naturally drawn to those who share common characteristics or interests. When you identify shared experiences or interests, it not only strengthens the connection but also paves the way for more meaningful conversations. Remember, it's not about pretending to be someone you're not; it's about finding genuine points of connection.

Step 5: Be Mindful of Non-Verbal Communication

While the words you speak are important, non-verbal communication plays a significant role in the success of a conversation. Your body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice can convey more about your feelings and intentions than your words alone.

Tip: Pay attention to your non-verbal cues, such as maintaining appropriate eye contact, using a friendly tone, and avoiding defensive or closed-off body language.

Psychologists have known for decades about power of non-verbal communication in conveying emotions and building rapport. One study found that non-verbal cues accounted for a substantial portion of the impact of a message. Therefore, being mindful of your non-verbal communication can enhance the quality of your conversation and help you connect more effectively with strangers.


Engaging in meaningful conversations with strangers is an invaluable skill that can enrich your personal and professional life. By approaching strangers with openness and positivity, using genuine icebreakers, practicing active listening, finding common ground, and being mindful of non-verbal communication, you can create deeper connections with the people you meet. Remember, every conversation is an opportunity to learn, grow, and expand your horizons. So, go out there and start connecting with strangers—you might just discover new perspectives, interests, and friendships that enrich your life in ways you never imagined.


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