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How to Talk to People, for Engineers

·7 mins

I’ve never been great at talking to people, especially strangers, but I’m much better than I used to be. In this post I’ll share some of the things I’ve learned in my quest to be a better human.

It’s good to have friends

One of the easiest things you can do to improve your life is to get better at interacting with everyone you meet. The more good interactions you have in life, the more friends you’ll make, and the more doors will open for you. Being likeable goes a really long way. Humans are very social creatures, and we’re happiest when we have strong connections and communities.

The first thing I’ll say is that practice is extremely important. If you want to improve your skills, just keep trying until you succeed more often.

Find ways to engage #

I’ve never been what you could call an outgoing or extroverted person, but I’ve always looked for opportunities to make sure I’m interacting with new people. It’s good to make new connections, expand your network, and find friends. Most of the time the best way to do this is by meeting people face to face, in real life. These are a few examples of how I’ve done that.

In 2014 I decided to start driving for Lyft on evenings and weekends (while I was still working at Airbnb). I did this for 2 reasons:

  1. When I exercised my Airbnb stock, I wound up with an enormous AMT bill and I wanted extra cash to pay it off
  2. I figured that driving for Lyft would be a good way to practice talking to strangers which is something I knew I still sucked at

Driving for Lyft was great because I was forced to meet someone new and have a converstion every 20-30 minutes. I had a lot of memorable, boring, and sometimes downright peculiar interactions with a diverse set of random individuals (and groups, too).

Eventually I abandoned my Lyft gig, but it was very good practice. It helped me realize that most people are friendly, although plenty of people are jerks, and that if you speak to people kindly they are likely to reciprocate. Getting outside your comfort zone is hard, but the more you do it the easier it gets.

In 2016 I did a cross country bike trip (from SF to NYC) where I got to chat with lots of different people from a variety of different backgrounds. The thing that was most surprising to me during that trip was how nearly universally everyone I met was kind, friendly, and willing to help. People often stopped to offer water, food, or whatever. In some cases people even opened their homes to me.

On the very first day of the trip I got heat stroke on a country road near Modesto (the air temperature was well over 40°C), collapsed on the side of the road, and if not for a retired police officer who happened to drive by, recognize that I was in trouble, and poured water on my body immediately, I may not be here today.

These days I try to get out to meetups or events that seem interesting, especially those related to technology or startups. I’m not a big fan of social outings that consist primarily of binge drinking, loud bars, or expensive dinners, but I’m willing to make exceptions for the right groups of people.

Listen first, talk second #

One of the first things anyone needs to understand about talking to people is that you have to practice listening first. If you find yourself doing more than 50% of the talking most of the time, you’re probably doing it wrong. If you’re constantly talking, the other party never gets to actually participate in the conversation and won’t be engaged. Avoid interrupting no matter how important you think your current thought is while someone else is talking.

A converstion should involve back and forth. It’s not a speech, you’re not there to talk at them, and you should make sure you hear their thoughts too.

Get people talking about themselves #

I remember when I was younger I always had a fear of asking people personal questions. I was worried they might get offended if I ask them a question they didn’t like.

What I know now, that I didn’t know then, is how much people love talking about themselves. If you ask someone a question about themselves, they will most likely be happy to tell you everything they can about it until you interrupt them or change the subject. It also makes other people feel good because it demonstrates that you have an interest in who they are.

In other words: ask a lot of questions, and ask personal questions about them. However, make sure you know what’s appropriate and not appropriate for the given situation and level of familiarity.

Escalation #

You can’t start a conversation in big talk mode, you have to begin with small talk. From small talk you can move on to medium talk, and eventually from medium talk you can get to big talk.

Sometimes you’re allowed to break this rule, but it’s a pretty well established social convention that you have to start from small talk first. People are not likely to let their guard down around strangers right from the start.

I’ve noticed there is one short circuit for getting people out of small talk mode quickly: be funny. And if you’re not good at being funny, at the very least be genuine and kind.

Have shared interests #

Conversations don’t go far when you have nothing to talk about. You can only say so much about the weather or the local sports team before you run out of things to discuss. And definitely don’t start talking about political or religious subjects unless it’s actually appropriate to do so.

Baby Doge, my sheeb
Baby Doge, my sheeb

One trick, which I have many times suggested to others, is to get a dog. I get approached constantly by strangers every day because of the fact that I have a dog, and she’s kind of cute. There’s a lot of other great benefits that come along with having a dog such as reduced risk of heart disease (likely because of having to walk your dog every day). A lot of people love dogs and it’s an easy subject to talk to just about anyone about.

If you don’t have a dog, then find groups of new people with shared interests to interact with. Try, Reddit meetups, or whatever your preferred social platform is.

Be approachable #

While the dog trick is a great way to make yourself more approachable, there are a few other things you can do as well. For starters, don’t walk around with headphones all the time (AirPods, sigh). Adjust your body language so you don’t look closed off to conversation. Don’t dress like a slob, but also don’t dress too fancy because it may intimidate some people.

Smiling is a fairly universal human signal of friendliness. If you can smile, do that.

Offer something #

To keep people engaged, it’s good to give them a reason to talk to you. If you want to meet the person again, tell them that. If you can help them in some way, let them know.

Know when to leave people alone #

Cold approaches are hard, and sometimes people just don’t want to talk to you. It’s probably not personal, it probably has nothing to do with your appearance, it may simply be that they’re focused on other things and don’t want to be bothered. If this happens, just let it go and move on.

Practice, practice, practice #

I’ve already said it, but I’ll repeat myself by closing on this note: like anything in life, you’ll get better the more you practice. Get out, meet new people, and just talk to them.