In the early days of our marriage my ex-husband frequently embarrassed me by what I perceived as his intrusive behavior with strangers we encountered. I felt very uncomfortable with the personal questions he asked and the equally personal information he shared with relative strangers.
My upbringing had led me to believe that a relationship needed to be established before one had a right to ask about a person’s occupation, family life or background. In fact, a rhetorical “How do you do?” was just about the limit of my usual exchange with someone I just met.
After 25 years of marriage to a minister I came to realize that, while my ex may have carried “instant camaraderie” a bit too far, I erred even further in the opposite direction.
My older sister is able to hit a perfect balance when it comes to striking up conversations with strangers. Many years working in retail sales helped hone what was an innate gift. Within a matter of moments of meeting someone new my sister is able to find some common bond that provides a jumping off point to relaxed, enjoyable conversation.
One of my friends at work has expanded upon a similar predisposition and can make each person in a conversation feel that what they are saying is supremely interesting to her. Kathy is genuinely caring and interested in people. There is nothing artificial about her, but I feel sure that her skill in making others feel important is the result of a conscious decision on her part.
My own natural talents lie in a different direction. I am perfectly comfortable performing in public or giving a motivational speech to a large group, but I have never cultivated the skill of small talk.
While watching others who have this ability I have gradually come to the conclusion that the key to successful conversational ability is, not surprisingly, giving more thought to what the other person is saying … and feeling … than to myself.
While I can impart information to a large audience, even make them laugh a bit and perhaps enjoy the experience of seeing and hearing my presentation, I don’t have as much potential to affect the way these people feel about themselves as I would have in a one-on-one conversation.
We are all created for relationships…relationships with one another and with God. Every encounter is an opportunity. I am trying very hard to cultivate a sensitivity to the people I meet and to move beyond mere politeness into genuine interest. Rather than wondering what each person who crosses my pass can offer to me, I’m trying to see what I have to give.
It doesn’t come naturally to me, I’m afraid, but when I manage to move my focus off myself, however briefly, the rewards are amazing.
If we meet one day and I ask, “How are you?”, please feel free to tell me all about it…I really want to know.