It was a hot summer Ramadan afternoon when my bus broke down and stranded me in an isolated village in Eastern Turkey near the Syrian border. More than 50 miles from my destination, I got off the bus and stood in the scorching sun clutching my busted cell phone. As I stood there wondering what to do next, an old Kurdish woman dressed from head to toe in bright purple began staring at me with mistrusting eyes. I didn’t blame her for being suspicious of me; she had every right to question how and why this strange blonde yabanci bayan (Turkish for foreign woman) had wandered to their neck of the woods.
My only way out of this remote village was to disarm her apprehension and build a fast rapport with the same woman that was glaring at me. If I could create a connection with this total stranger who I knew nothing about in less than 5 minutes everything would be fine. If not, I might be stranded for days or longer.
The clock was ticking.
The Secret to Disarming Strangers: Ask the Right Questions
So how do you build connections with strangers who know nothing about you and probably already distrust you?
It starts with making people comfortable enough with you to begin to form trust. The best way to start that process is by having genuine curiosity. If you have no interest in the person you’re trying to build a rapport with, you have little hope of building a deeper connection, for everyday life or for business. To rapidly develop relationships you need to strive for a deeper level of engagement with someone to establish commonalities that you can bond over.
With this Kurdish woman I first asked her where she was from because I wanted to learn more about her. I was searching for a commonality between us to guide our conversation. I was guessing and hoping that she was from an Eastern Turkish city close to my ancestral roots. Luckily I was right, and this built the basis of our conversation. Her hometown, Urfa, gave me the opportunity to bring up my own family’s background and explain what I was doing in Eastern Turkey, which made her feel more comfortable and familiar with me.
Asking someone about where they’re from is an easy way to find a common thread (even if you’re not from the same place), and also helps you discover more about that person’s background. However, if you have more context about the person you’re trying to build rapport with (what industry they work in, what hobbies they have, etc) you can make your questions much more targeted.
How to Dig For Clues & Make Educated Guesses to Build Rapport
It wasn’t rocket science for me to guess that this woman was from the Eastern city of Urfa, but still I asked where she was from to start the conversation. Aside from the fact we were both on a bus that broke down on the way to Urfa, she was covered in bright purple, a custom known to her hometown. Whether you’re trying to build a rapport with someone online or offline, it’s best to plan your questions around little clues that the person gives off.
When meeting someone in person I try to always look for queues to their past and present–like accents, dress, body language, and other aesthetics (For more tips on this read Sam Gosling’s book “Snoop.”), but I also pair this with asking good leading questions. If I’m engaging with someone online I spend a few minutes using tools like Rapportive and simple web searches to get clues into my prospects’ lives. Things like profile pictures, taglines, and the tone and subject matter of their writing in everything from Twitter and Linkedin to a blog or book they’ve written give me some sense of who they are. I try to parse through as much of their writing as I can within 5 minutes before sending an email or doing a call, and sometimes 15 minutes if they are a bigger fish.
If a certain CEO just tweeted about their recent Hong Kong trip, I can ask them about their favorite things in Hong Kong since I used to live there. While demonstrating interest in them I also learn more about their personality and what they enjoy. I now suggest some of my favorite things to do in Hong Kong. If they already know of and enjoy these things, this adds credibility to me, but if they don’t this gives them something cool to do next time they’re in Hong Kong (which will make them think about me and builds reciprocity).
Whatever your background is, know your strengths so you can search for areas to connect with people and add value. For me that’s usually travel, but for you maybe that’s sports, music or some other activity or interest.
How I Had Got A Free Ride & Made A New Friend in Eastern Turkey
In less than 5 minutes I had learned that her family was one of the oldest families in Urfa, about her childhood memories and early years of marriage, as well as the details of many of her grandchildren. We were both weary from an exhausting journey, but we now stood together smiling. We weren’t strangers anymore.
“So how are you going to get to Mardin?” she finally asked me.
“I don’t know. My phone is broken. Do you have a way that I can call my friend in Mardin?” I asked her.
“Yes I do, but my grandson is also coming to pick me up. He has a car and can drive you to the next city to catch a bus to Mardin. If it’s too late you can stay at our house until the next day. He can probably even take you to Mardin,” she said.
“Wow, thank you so much. This is really too much,” I said apologetically. I thanked her profusely and took her hand and kissed it as a sign of respect and gratitude.
Whether you’re trying to hitch a ride from an old Kurdish woman in Eastern Turkey or close a B2B sales deal, in order to be successful you must strive to build a lasting rapport. In striving to develop deeper relationships you will not only have richer interactions, but also be more effective with your goals, both business and personal.