If you want success, pursue a stranger
Many of us struggle to find time for our nearest and dearest, but experts say that making time to connect with new people should be as much of a priority.
Kaley Chu, 33, remembers quietly nursing her newborn at her mother’s group catch-ups, knowing the answer to many of her fellow new mums’ conundrums. But instead of sharing the many insights she’d gathered from the medical journals and parenting resources she’d read, she stayed silent.
“I didn’t have the courage to share my opinion – I always had this conflict of ‘I want to talk to people but I don’t know how’,” she recalls.
“I was so shy and as an immigrant [from Hong Kong] I always felt like I was inferior to other [Australians].”
Frustrated by her lack of confidence, she considered therapy before settling on a new year’s resolution to ask two strangers out to lunch each week to try to learn conversation skills.
“As a full-time working parent, my evenings and weekends were spent with family, so the only time I had to work on my own growth was my lunch breaks,” she says.
She scanned her LinkedIn social network for strangers who seemed interesting and set about sending invites to lunch in the Melbourne CBD.
“When I first started the challenge, 90 per cent of people would ignore me or decline because they were too busy or couldn’t come into the city or worried I was trying to pull out a sales pitch,” she says.
“The first guy I took to lunch was a businessman and having lunch with someone new was not a crazy thing for him, but it was a brand new experience for me and I was totally out of my comfort zone.”
Four years later, she’s clocked 350 lunches with everyone from billionaires to tradies and performers, and says the experience has completely changed her life trajectory. She quit her job, wrote a book (100 Lunches With Strangers) and now makes a living speaking about dining with strangers.
“Each new person we meet is an opportunity to be exposed to a unique perspective, and to diversify our understanding of life.”
“Now I invite strangers out for lunch anywhere, it might be school mums I want to get to know a little better, or I might see a street performer and go, ‘I’d love to know more about magic, can I take you out to lunch?’” she says.
“There have been a lot of awkward silences but now I just embrace them and keep the conversation going. My life is a lot more colourful now, and I say yes to more things. It’s improved my marriage too – my husband and I go on new adventures and try fun activities together … and I’ve got a lot more stories to share with him when I get home.”
Why strangers matter
As much as our relatives, colleagues and old friends are important for our happiness and staving off loneliness, psychologist Samuel Ma, from the Australian Institute for Human Wellness, says meeting new people broadens our horizons.
“Each new person we meet is an opportunity to be exposed to a unique perspective, and to diversify our understanding of life,” he says.
“It’s important to encounter others of a different age, gender, culture, sexual orientation or religion to build empathy and social skills for future social encounters.”
Along the way, Ma says we’ll build our conversational skills.
“This extends to assertiveness, non-verbal behaviour and our capacity to actively listen,” he says.
Dr Tim Sharp, chief happiness officer at The Happiness Institute, agrees that meeting new people has powerful wellbeing potential.
“Maybe we hear a new opinion, learn about a new book or movie or recipe – and that spontaneity brings a lot of value and benefits our perspective,” he says.
Build the courage
Whether you’re keen to ask a colleague to hang outside of work or you’re eyeing off a fellow school parent who looks like a fun friendship addition, Ma says it’s common to feel anxious when asking someone new to socialise.
“Consider why this is important to you, whether this be to develop a greater sense of interpersonal connection, improve your wellbeing or broaden your social perspective,” he suggests.
“Then make a plan for that one-on-one catch-up that feels attainable, such as going for an outdoor walk or grabbing a coffee on the way to work.”
Sharp suggests not putting too much pressure on the catch-up to be life-changing.
“It’s not necessarily about [this person] becoming your best friend, it’s just about the experience of meeting someone new or learning something new or going to a new restaurant or cafe,” he says.
“Ask yourself, ‘What have I got to lose?’ Even if they said no, would anything be really lost? But if they said yes, what could you potentially gain?”
How to find new people to meet
For Chu, LinkedIn was a great starting point for finding strangers, but Ma says you can also harness your existing network.
“Perhaps we might establish new connections at events through our partners, workplace or long-time family friends,” he suggests.
“We could also actively seek out environments where meeting new people is common, such as playing social sport or volunteering in your local community.”
When it comes to asking your new contact for a one-on-one, Chu says enthusiasm goes a long way.
“If you’re positive and high energy, people find you more charismatic and want to spend more time with you,” she says.
There might be a few clunky moments to begin with, but Chu says focusing more on listening and less on talking will enhance the experience.
“The one that listens and asks questions actually controls the conversation – it’s a gift to the other person because the more they share and the more they talk, the happier they are,” she says.
“We can get deeper into the conversation with [follow-ups] like ‘Tell me more’ or ‘What do you think about that?’”
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