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How to connect and find common ground in any situation

How to have a conversation with someone new — or your uncle on the other side of the political aisle.
Image: Below View of Group of Friends Toasting with Wine
Common ground provides a pathway of communication, which leads to trust. BraunS / Getty Images

There are many circumstances in which you may find yourself with the opportunity or social obligation to start a conversation with someone you don’t know. If you are starting from apparently no knowledge of the other person, at least you know that you share the situation you are both in. Some good conversation openers might be, “How do you know James and Sharon?” (The party hosts.) “Are you visiting San Francisco, or going home?” (On an airplane.)

When initiating a conversation with a stranger, avoid asking overly personal questions. If you lead by asking someone if she’s married or what his job is, you may seem to be prying. However, if the other person volunteers that she has recently changed jobs or he is having trouble with his health, that may be okay as a topic. Likewise, launching into your own personal situation too readily might make the other person feel awkward.

But What If It's Someone You Do Know?

No matter what your relationship, be attentive and kind regarding the other’s feelings. Most people like to be appreciated. Showing interest is hospitality; it invites them in. Enthusiastic words at the appropriate time will often move the conversation forward. For example, after greeting someone, we might say, “What a splendid speech you gave!” or “Your garden is looking so beautiful this spring.” Depending on the mood and the person we’re talking to, the conversation can then be directed in a variety of ways. Whether brief or meandering, the dance has begun.

If you believe conversation to be an irrelevant nicety, it is likely to feel like a shallow attempt at interchange. This is known as “small talk,” as opposed to “big talk,” which indicates that there is seemingly more important subject matter. It is true — there is. But each kind of dialogue has its place, and all conversation is important. If you feel that small dialogue is beneath you or demeaning, you come across as arrogant or insensitive, as if you don’t care much about what others think or feel.

And when you habitually disdain the shallower end of the conversational spectrum, others do feel uncomfortable sharing deeper thoughts and feelings.

If there are root differences we know are difficult to bridge, both parties must be willing to live with the fact that we may not agree on all things.

When You're With Someone Who Doesn't Share Your View

When conversing with someone you don’t agree with, find simple common ground to build connectivity and friendship. Instead of focusing on where you disagree, build on a variety of subjects that can strengthen the relationship, such as a cuisine or a sport you both enjoy. Common ground provides a pathway of communication, which leads to trust. At meetings or business gatherings, try talking about food, drink, going for a walk, playing golf or going for a run — all these activities allow for common experience. Then we find ourselves conversing with others. By doing this we build connectivity and trust.

Through trust, friendship can be established, and then more difficult subjects can come up because we experience a sense of freedom that allows us to be true and authentic. We also understand better, empathetically, how another perceives things. We begin to see that not all their views are wrong and not all our views are right. We learn to let go. Through appreciation of each other, we are willing to compromise. Previous problems can then be approached because we have more tools to work with.

In negotiations, it is good to find small things to build on. Ultimately, if there are root differences we know are difficult to bridge, both parties must be willing to live with the fact that we may not agree on all things. This is a natural part of the reality of living in the world with other people.

Reflect on your skills in building connections and developing trust. How flexible are you when you don’t know someone or she disagrees with you? Are you able to compromise, accept the results and let go? Or do you measure the result against your expectations?

You Have to Know Who You Are

Some people are introverted and some are extroverted. If you are more reserved, you may have to put extra effort into conversation. Shyness often arises from fear of making a mistake, feeling exposed or lack of conversation skills or confidence. Often we are so wrapped up in our own emotions that we’re unable to feel others’ state of being. It takes determination and practice to come out of your shell, but there are ways to do it.

Stay caught up on current events and always have a topic in mind as an opener — preferably nothing to do with politics. Or notice something about the other person; it could be the color she’s wearing or her name. Then take the leap and begin a conversation. “That’s such a beautiful color. It reminds me of the ocean in Bermuda. Have you ever been there?” Or “‘Driskill,’ you say? Any relation to the folks who own the hotel?”

The more conversations you begin, the more confident you will feel. Learn to flash on your own presence first, however that makes sense to you. For example, you can take a breath, or feel the place where your feet meet the floor. Then place your awareness on the other person. It also helps to have a favorite all-purpose opener to get things rolling. A friend of mine says, “How’s your heart?” He claims that asking this question — and making a commitment to really listen to the answer — has made for some extraordinary conversations.

If you are extroverted, you may need to practice toning it down. Again, the advice is to be present, forget about yourself and feel the state of others. Keep in mind that people may not be interested in hearing your advice, the details of your life or your pet peeves. They might not think your children are so adorable. They might like to get in a word edgewise. The power of silence is a friend to the extrovert, but the person who doesn’t speak at all might arouse suspicion. At the same time, shy people can be good conversationalists and outgoing people can be challenged by a simple conversation.

Go Ahead and Try It

Think about someone in your daily life you don’t normally pay attention to and decide to acknowledge him the next time you see him and to be attentive to his response. You could decide to say, “Hello, how are you?” to the person who’s always reading the newspaper in the lobby of your apartment building. Make a sincere attempt to engage. Through this simple practice, you can make some wonderful connections.


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Excerpted from The Lost Art of Good Conversation: A Mindful Way to Connect with Others and Enrich Everyday Life by Tibetan spiritual leader, Sakyong Mipham.