Good teammates share, and I feel compelled to share a book recommendation this week: Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell. I read this book several months ago, but recent world events have reminded me of its significance and that’s why I’m recommending it today.

Talking to Strangers book coverThe book is about the conflicts we invite into our lives because we’re unable to make sense of people we don’t know. We frequently misinterpret the actions, words, and intentions of strangers in a way we never would of people we know.

Gladwell’s book made me think about how this topic applies to the art of being a good teammate. When dealing with a team that is diverse and deficient in familiarity, cracking what I call the stranger barrier can be challenging. How can you quickly convey to others that you are a good teammate and that they can be a good teammate to you when you are essentially a stranger to them?

Here are five ways to initiate the process of cracking the stranger barrier:

 1.  Smile. Smiles transcend age, gender, ethnicity, and language. As writer William Arthur Ward said, “A warm smile is the universal language of kindness.” Smiles convey kindness and kindness facilitates trust. We don’t think of people we trust as being strangers.

But be careful…smiles are subject to additional cultural interpretations. What is viewed as friendliness to some may be taken as nervousness or smugness to others. While a smile is a good start, it requires the support of the rest of this list to be rendered effective.

2.  Use Welcoming Body Language. Posture, facial contortion, and hand gestures trigger important nonverbal cues. A closed posture (hunching forward with crossed arms and/or legs) suggests defensiveness, hostility, and unfriendliness. Whereas an open posture (body trunk squared with hands relaxed and exposed) suggests friendliness, receptiveness, and sincerity.

But be careful…even with an open posture and welcoming facial expressions, the size and velocity of your gestures can skew the message. Large, fast gestures imply aggression. Small, slow gestures imply tranquility.

3.  Reveal Trivial Details About Yourself. Humans have an innate desire to categorize. The unknown is unsettling, so we try to interpret the unknown by categorizing strangers based on their similarity to those with whom we’ve previously interacted. The flawed process starts by analyzing what we see. Providing information that can’t by derived from what is seen broadens the categorization process. For instance, if you tell a someone that you love McDonald’s French fries, you trigger a new association. The other person might think, “My Aunt Helen loves McDonald’s French fries, too. My Aunt Helen is kind and sweet.” Suddenly, you’re now placed in the same category as Aunt Helen, and you’re less of a stranger than you were before you spoke.

But be careful…revealing information that is too personal or polarizing could lead you to be miscategorized and draw undesired suspicion. Your attempt to broaden the categorization process will backfire. The key is to share trivial details.

4.  Pay a Compliment. Few things build rapport quicker than receiving positive feedback. We’re inevitably endeared to persons who pay us compliments because they make us feel good about ourselves.

But be careful…compliments must be sincere. Offering phony compliments will be counterproductive and cause your intentions to be questioned. You can often deliver sincerity by explaining the source of your compliment. “I love your boots. They remind me of my Uncle Jim. He was the kindest person I ever met, and he used to wear boots like that.”

5.  Offer Assistance. We tend to trust those who demonstrate humility through their willingness to serve. Is there something the other person needs help with? Can you hold the door for the person whose hands are full? Can you offer a tissue to the person who sneezed? Small gestures of kindness signal empathy.

But be careful…For the same reasons as above, a lack of sincerity can bring your intentions into question. Offering too much help too early will make the other person wonder about your motives. Sometimes it’s best to remove doubt and state your empathy before offering to help. “You look like you’re struggling with that. How can I help?”

The solution to many of our teams’ problems—and many of the word’s problems too—lies in breaking down the stranger barrier and turning strangers into teammates. When strangers become teammates, we start fighting for each other instead of against each other.

As always…Good teammates care. Good teammates share. Good teammates listen. Go be a good teammate.

Lance Loya is the founder and CEO of the Good Teammate Factory. He is a college basketball coach turned author, blogger, and professional speaker, who inspires TEAMBUSTERS to become TEAMMATES. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or through his weekly Teammate Tuesday blog.


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