My husband and I recently returned from a 10-day trip to Norway, where we had the opportunity to meet over a dozen new faces in our lives. The fisherman who oversees two daily fishing trips, the uber-locals who never leave their tiny island and drink beers together every day at 4, the art collector who brought million-dollar works to the middle of nowhere in a gallery on the edge of the water.
With every new person, I like to see what we can learn from them. To me, this is my absolute favorite part about traveling to new places: Getting the chance to engage in deep conversation with people from a completely different background. And, if you set the stage properly, to really get them talking.
How often do you give yourself the opportunity to sit in a conversation and just listen?
To engage with another person without passing judgement, carrying an agenda, or competing for air time? To give in simply to one desire only: Curiosity and understanding.
As the listener, I find it much easier to abstract myself away from the day-to-day innuendo and drama from people whose lives are completely different from my own.
After all, I’m not a retired Norwegian childcare specialist, a Japanese businessman in the pickling industry, or a Balinese rice farmer. The day-do-day lives of these people is so far removed from my own that it would be unjust for me to carry any strong opinions in either direction.
Hearing about different government structures or religious entities that I don’t relate to doesn’t trigger me the same way it might to say, jump in on a conversation about U.S. megachurches or the 2020 election.
And so, abstracted just enough away, my role in the conversations boils down to one thing only: Establishing empathy.
“Tell me,” I might ask, “What’s it like to grow up with a family of rice farmers?”
Or: “How has the immigration crisis in Europe affected your day-to-day and cost of living in a socialist society?”
Or: “If you don’t like American culture, why did you decide to move there for 10 years when you were younger?”
If you give people the space and the safety to answer honestly, their answers may surprise you.
But you need to let them talk.
About five years ago, I delivered a five-minute lightning talk, “How to Talk to Anyone.” (You can watch it here.)
In this brief presentation, I establish three rules I like to use when interacting with new people:
- Break the script.
- Shift your viewpoint.
- Look for their inner nerd.
The third rule is the one I come back to most regularly in my head. That is to say, I believe everybody on this planet has something they care deeply about. Whether it’s a unique story or perspective to share, an expertise in a particular area, or a fascination with a topic that never crosses your own brain space, it’s my #1 objective in any conversation to get new people to that — their “passion point.”
You can’t get there if you keep interrupting. You won’t get there if you make it an unsafe place to speak. And you’ll never find that moment if you fail to genuinely listen.
Sometimes good listening means keeping your mouth shut, even if you do have another story to tell. Sometimes it means holding back judgment, even if they say something that completely contradicts your own personal worldview.
I challenge you: The next time you come across a person with a completely different perspective than you do, don’t try to change their mind. Just try to understand why they feel that way.
Lots of people travel to add new stories to their own memory books. I like to collect stories from the people I meet along the way, too. Trust me: The best ones will stick with you even more than your own.
Also published on Medium.