How to Get a Stranger to Talk Honestly with You

How to Get a Stranger to Talk Honestly with You

An estimated 25 million Americans suffer from some form of social anxiety disorder, or as it might be better understood, extreme shyness.

I’m one of them, or at least I was. The phobia is characterized by an intense fear of social situations in which others are positioned to scrutinize or judge. For some, the disorder can be debilitating. I never had panic attacks or chest pains, but I was certainly ever-anxious when interacting with strangers.

This became a big problem as I began work in my chosen profession: a news reporter. First, I didn’t interview well, so it was hard to land a job. And then when came time to jump in and start mixing with the real world, I was initially hesitant and slow.

Thankfully, my first editor wouldn’t give up on me. He would coach me up and send me out again, somehow understanding what was going on. After a few weeks, I had an epiphany: most people want to talk about themselves. They don’t mind opening up to a stranger like me. They want to tell their story or at least their side of it.

A decade or so into my career, I sat across from Arnold Schwarzenegger, then Governor of California, in his famous smoking tent in the courtyard of the Capitol. He was enjoying the last butt of a Cuban cigar, taking it down to the end the way some might smoke the roach of a marijuana cigarette.

We’d been talking for about a half hour. He was very skilled at staying on message and ignoring most of my questions. But with the cigar butt becoming more of a visual issue, he offered without solicitation that his then-wife, Maria, only allowed him one cigar a day. He said he was very careful to get all he could out of that one smoke.

Schwarzenegger, a master communicator, felt the need to justify his actions to me. Why? How do you get people, even those skilled in the art of verbal combat, to open up?

Here are 4 ways to help to get anyone to talk honestly to you.

  1. Have a logical opening. Make sure your subject understands why you want to talk to them. Keep the explanation simple and logical. I was at a farmers’ market in the Bay Area once and recognized Milton Friedman, the Nobel prize winning economist. I interrupted him as he was evaluating fresh oranges. I asked why the fruit in the stores was so much cheaper when so much of it was imported from other countries. He was happy to chat about it. 
  1. Show interest. This might seem too obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people are distracted or worse, uninterested, while supposedly in conversation. Make eye contact. Be available. I noticed that the woman who served me coffee this morning was very pregnant. She told me she was eight months along, that it was a girl and that she would name her Riot to go with her other daughter whose name was Rebel. Had another customer not been waiting behind me, I would have learned about why she chose such colorful names. 
  1. Do not interrupt. Dennis Miller, the comedian, came to the capitol in Sacramento to see his friend Arnold. I ran into him coming through the doors. I was flustered and unprepared and ended up answering the question I’d asked him. “That’s a rookie mistake, my friend,” Miller answered and walked away. 
  1. Use pauses to your advantage. Silence during a conversation is a vacuum that almost everyone will try to fill. Resist. Often people are assembling their thoughts. You may have asked something that creates conflict in their mind. You’ll want to wait for their answer. I knew a mayor in a small town where I once edited the local paper. His wife had made a spectacle of herself before a council meeting, something she’s done before but this time it was over the top. I called the mayor the next morning for reaction. “I have no comment,” he said, and I let the words hang in the air for a moment or two. “You know when she comes up to the podium, I never know what she’s going to say.” “So you are commenting,” I said. “No, no comment. ”No further comment,” I corrected him.

There are many people blessed with the ability to gain the trust of strangers with just a smile. I’ve had to learn how to do it. I think that if you are honest in your approach, if you are willing to exchange thoughts and can contribute – most people will open up about themselves.

Tom ChorneauTom Chorneau spent nearly 30 years in mainstream journalism, including more than a decade as an investigative reporter for the Associated Press and the San Francisco Chronicle. His most recent non-fiction book, “Mrs. Cook and the Klan,” details events surrounding an unsolved murder that took place in rural Iowa in 1925. For more about Tom visit www.tomchorneau.com.

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