On Saturday I celebrated the life of my grandmother, Virginia. One of the themes from her memorial service was how my grandma loved having conversations with anyone and everyone about anything and everything. So, I thought it fitting to write about how talking to strangers will enrich your career.

My grandma might not have channelled her superpower in a way that allowed her to realize her professional potential, but that didn’t make her methods any less sound. With this in mind, here are three reasons why you should talk to strangers (and some conversational tips for how to do it).

You will build communication skills

According to pretty much every survey of employers, employees and human beings who care about things, being able to speak well is the most important skill that you can develop. When you talk to strangers there is no way to plan the conversation. Sure, you can make assumptions based on how a person looks, moves and sounds, but inferences are often incorrect. Needless to say, when you’re made to adapt to someone else’s style your listening skills, sense of inquiry and ability to adjust your tone and words for your new friend will improve.

Now imagine exercising this muscle a few times per day with a few different people with whom you don’t normally talk, but who you see every day on the bus or at the coffee shop. You can even try talking with Rachel in the Finance department who, rumour has it, doesn’t speak to anyone. By engaging in this simple experiment you will hone your communication skills to match the needs and styles of countless different people.

CONVERSATIONAL TIP: “Hi, my name is [INSERT YOUR NAME HERE]. How are you today?”

You will learn something

“Learning happens everywhere and always” is what a mentor of mine from the world of higher education, Richard Keeling, has been known to say. And it’s true (as long as you embed reflection at the end of your experience). Everyone has a story. Whatever that story is you can learn something from people with whom you rarely or never converse.

In talking to strangers I have learned the following things (all 100% true):

  • In the state of Georgia you can legally marry an alligator.
  • Everything you do matters. Nothing is a waste of time unless you make it so. (This is beautiful paraphrasing of a conversation I had about Wade Davis and his brilliant career advice).
  • There is the beginnings of a wind farm on Northern Vancouver Island.
  • The best campsites on the Nootka Trail.
  • When chocolate has sugar as one of the top three ingredients it isn’t good chocolate.
  • Pretty much every angle of political opinion there is.
  • Career advice from thousands of employers and conversations with over 10,000 students and young people who reacted to how I customized the advice for them.

CONVERSATIONAL TIP: “Tell me more, please.”

You will enhance community well-being

Knowing your neighbours will help our planet stand a chance against climate change.

Seriously.

When we know each other, human beings espouse more empathy and trust, share resources, and help out during tough (or tragic) times. Genuinely caring about the people around you might change your perspective about how you travel and what you buy. When you know your neighbours and fee a connection to them you are more likely to borrow a power drill, books or butter than buy such things brand new, thus reducing the amount of stuff in the world. When communities are closer and disaster strikes (e.g. Superstorm Sandy or the pending West Coast earthquake) people are more likely to share power for phone chargers, food for people who don’t have it, and piggyback-rides for senior citizens who can’t make it downstairs because of a broken elevator.

Deeper connections empower our communities to go farther together.

CONVERSATIONAL TIP: “Hey, have you met [INSERT NAME OF ANOTHER PERSON]? I think you two should chat about [INSERT COOL TOPIC OF CONVERSATION].

Learning, skill-building and enhancing community well-being can be achieved as soon as you start talking to strangers.

Enjoy the conversations!

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