The Dying Art of Conversation with People You Barely Know


After more than 45 years of missionary service, my husband, Art, and I are preparing for retirement and living in an area where we don’t know many people. So why is it that, when we go to a church that is new to us, we’re one of the last to leave? Sometimes we have very meaningful conversations with people we meet for the first time. Are we just natural extroverts who don’t know when to shut up?

Actually, as a teenager, Art didn’t talk a lot, even to people he knew well. I’ve always been more outgoing, but as a teen I often didn’t have the confidence to talk to people who weren’t church people. Today we can talk to almost anyone.

What changed?

We’ve worked at our conversation skills and developed them throughout many years of ministry. You may find this surprising, but the art of simple conversation is one of the most important ministry skills we have.

In our own church ministry in New Zealand, welcoming strangers and getting to know our church people has been crucial. Visiting our supporting churches in the States means we need to connect with many people whose faces look familiar but whose names we might not remember. Now, we’re looking for a church to call our home in Iowa. That means meeting a constant stream of strangers, some of whom won’t be a part of the church we choose.

Initiating and filling out conversations with people we don’t know well takes some social energy, but it’s really not difficult for us anymore because ministry has given us plenty of opportunity to practice. Some of these conversations don’t go very deep, but it’s surprising how many really great conversations we get into. They often form the start of a nice friendship.

How do we do it?

Today I’m going to reveal the relatively simple tactics we use to initiate conversations with people we don’t know and may not have much in common with. This might look a little different at church than it does in our neighborhood or at Walmart, but it does work. And it’s a skill you can learn.

Send out feelers.

Some people may not like to engage in conversation with strangers. In some situations, over-friendliness can even feel a little creepy. But let’s say you’re in a safe environment and just want to send out some friendly vibes and see what someone will do with it. How do you make that happen?

Begin by putting your cell phone away. Hiding behind cell phones is a very efficient way to kill conversations before they begin. (Even I struggle to start a conversation with someone using a phone for any reason.) Then make eye contact and smile. Make a general comment that’s appropriate for the situation. You don’t want to get too personal and make the person feel unsafe, but here are some topics that often work with people you don’t know or don’t know well.

  • Weather
  • Where they are from
  • How long they’ve lived in this place
  • What job they have
  • If they are a student and what they are studying
  • What they enjoy doing, hobbies or interests
  • Some item of general interest

If the person doesn’t want to talk to you, they’ll probably let you know, but this gives you a good place to start.

When my husband and I go to a church camp, we each sit separately with different campers every meal. We line up last so we can spot spare places and sit with kids or teens who might show more interest than others. We ask the names of campers closest to us and ask where they are from.  We ask about camp activities. If we’re familiar with their families we ask about them. We might ask about their interests: sports, music, future career, hobbies, college expectations. This often gives us a way to connect with some of them.

I look for potential writers or missionaries or Christian workers. Art is more likely to ask about sports and physical activities. The key word is “ask.” Many kids and teens are willing to talk if you get the conversation started, ask them about themselves, and show genuine interest.

You can do a similar thing while you greet a visitor at church, watch a soccer game, or visit at someone’s house.

Focus on them.

As missionary guest speakers the focus is usually on us. We go first in the food line. We are featured and welcomed in the service. We talk about ourselves and our ministry. Some of this is necessary and helpful. But if we want to have a significant impact on individuals, we need to shift the focus at some point. This is not just about me and my ministry. I want to know about the other person. Who is she? What’s going on in her life right now? What is she passionate about? What can I learn from her?

When you focus on a person, listen to more than words. Search for their concerns or joys or passions.  Listen to what they say to learn about them, not just to use their words as a springboard for your own comments. You may never see this person again, but right now she deserves your full attention.

Connect as a friend.

This is not sermon time. I don’t start a conversation to straighten someone out or act like super-missionary. I just want to know him and affirm him. These are the kinds of questions I like to ask:

You like to play baseball? Cool. What position do you play? I know missionaries who use baseball for a great outreach in the Dominican Republic.

You play the piano? How long have you played? God can really use that skill in your church or on the mission field.

You do artwork? I’d love to see your work sometime. Do you have photos on your phone?

You’re a football fan? In New Zealand they play rugby. I actually know very little about it, but you should talk to my husband sometime. He likes sports, but he’s more of a runner.

Sound pointless? Actually, making conversation is an important friendship skill that will help you wherever you go. Today we have more forms of communication than ever before: texting, email, phone calls, Skype, Facebook, Twitter, social media in many other forms, even snail mail. But with all of these, we have less and less time to actually focus on one person and communicate well. It’s becoming a dying art, and yet one that is desperately needed.

I’m convinced that one of the most effective ways to impact people is through quiet, personal conversations. We don’t often see the results of this kind of ministry, but it is real and memorable. While we give friendship in this way, we receive rich benefits as well.

How can you use these friendship skills to encourage someone today?