I remember when I was a kid, riding around with my Dad in his truck, asking him, "How do I talk to girls? I never know what to say!" He said, "Ask good questions, and pay attention to the answers." That always stayed with me, and became more than a way of talking to girls. It has helped me get to know new acquaintances as well and learn how to have good conversations.
Many Christians have strong convictions and big opinions, and making them known can feel like a calling. Of course all Christians are called to bear witness to Jesus Christ (Acts 1:8), but we can be over-eager to be heard and understood without taking the time to learn of and from others. This is is especially problematic when we are seeking to build relationships in a third place. My advice to those of you who want to be a regular part of a particular smaller community is simple: listen, learn, then speak.
Part Three: Listen, Learn, Then Speak
When you step into a new place keep in mind that there are already long-time regulars and established relationships in place. You are the newbie. Because of this you should make it a priority to listen before speaking.
Listening first doesn't mean silence on your part, but in fact will require you to speak. The difference is one of direction. Your immediate goal should be to get to know people, to learn something of who they are, before dumping your life story or a lesson for the day on them. Listening comes first because people are worth knowing and because real conversation is impossible without it.
In the tradition of my Dad let me give you a few practical tips. I know this will seem obvious to many of you, but I have met a lot of Christians--and pastors--who are socially awkward and do not know where to start in talking with strangers.
Introduce yourself and offer a hand shake. "Hey, I'm Joe." Make it a firm hand shake, and one or two pumps. Look them in the eye.
Ask easy questions related to the place you are in. I ask, "What cigar are you smoking?" You might ask, "Is the house blend coffee any good?" or, "How long has this place been here?"
If appropriate, inquire what the other person does for a living.
If a conversation does not ensue, tell them it was nice meeting them and relax. Drink a coffee, read a book, or whatever you do in that third place. Become a part of something new takes time.
Join the conversation, but don't dominate it. Listen to the open conversations already in play. Note the subjects and follow the arguments. What are people passionate about in this place? Don't be afraid to wade into the dialog. Do not steal the conversation, but seek to make it better with thoughtfulness, humor (when appropriate), and questions.
I have come to learn that when I listen to and learn from others they are more likely to listen and learn with me. This fosters better conversations and develops friendships.
In there next post I'll share some thoughts on gospel conversations and prayer in public.