There was a time in my life when my children were small and I was recently divorced, that I needed to work part time. I had few office skills, not even typing, so I was pretty depressed at the thought of finding something I could do and get paid for. Then I met Renee, a woman who owned a market research business. Renee focused on conducting specialized one-to-one interviews, often by appointment, about a wide variety of topics concerning both products and opinions.
Renee and I hit it off immediately and she put me right to work. The best thing about the job was that you didn't need any training or special knowledge. All you had to do was ask pre-written questions and record the answers. Sometimes I questioned specific people that she had lined up, while at other times I had to approach total strangers or find my own interviewees. It was quite challenging yet offered me unforeseen revelations about human nature. Each assignment was a surprise.
My very first survey was quizzing women of all ages about their birth control preferences! I had to find a certain number of women who were married, a number who were unattached and quotas in different age ranges. What a challenge to cut my teeth on! At first I was embarrassed to even approach a strange woman to discuss such an intimate area of her life, but after a few attempts my stage fright disappeared. What surprised me the most was how willing my informants were to discuss this very private topic with a stranger. As time went on I talked with many people of all ages and all economic groups. I never knew from job to job what the topic would be. I remember going to informants' homes to have them taste alcohol and tell me their preferences as well as having interviews that sometimes lasted over an hour discussing attitudes and fears about life issues. Some people opened up and shared very intimate information about themselves, their relationships and life in general. It was quite an education in human nature.
Soon after completing an assignment in which I quizzed owners of Chevrolets and Fords, mostly men, about their opinions, I went to a single's party hoping to meet an eligible man. I was pretty ill at ease as I looked over the group. All my insecurities came flooding over me. I didn't feel pretty enough or young enough or something else enough to attract a handsome man. Suddenly it dawned on me that most of the men at the party had cars, and whether they were Chevrolets or Fords, they most likely had some interest or opinions about cars.
Therefore, I picked a good-looking guy and started a conversation with him. I told him who I was and that I had recently had a lot of fun interviewing car owners about their opinions. Before I got much further he interrupted me to launch into his history with cars and his know-how about which cars were the best and why. All I had to do was stand there and smile as if I really knew what he was talking about. I had a great deal of fun doing this: start the conversation and then listen. Toward the end of the evening the man I was conversing with said, "You are the most interesting woman I have met here tonight." From my point of view, all I had done actually was to smile a lot and occasionally ask some questions that would keep my partner involved in a subject that he felt expert in.
That experience taught me that I didn't have to feel ill at ease in social situations and wait for someone else to initiate the conversation. I could take the lead and offer an observation, opinion or question about a familiar or shared subject or issue. You will be astonished by the amount of information or thoughts that others will disclose to you even it you are a stranger. The key to success in my own experience stemmed from the fact that market research is not based on fact. It is based on opinion, and everyone has an opinion and will stick by it! It doesn't matter if you start a conversation about politics, fashion, parenting, movies, or cars, most people will gladly offer their 2 cents worth as if they were experts. Afterwards they may very likely tell someone that they found you very easy to talk with and that you were very interesting!
Recently I realized how important my know-how as a market researcher was to me when I became a psychotherapist. As a market researcher I learned how to be interested and accepting of a wide variety of people of all ages, races, sexual persuasions, and economic groups without bias. In many ways I am still doing market research since my clients feel comfortable sharing intimate details with me as I listen without judgment.
The next time you are in a situation where you are with strangers and feel awkward starting a conversation, think about a topic that most people share. It might have to do with current events or politics. Some topics are universal such as our pets, healthy eating, how to manage a teenager, favorite vacations spots, or even the weather. Take your attention off of your own discomfort and focus on the stranger you are facing. Instead of being the "expert" become the inquiring reporter and see what happens next.
More personal development coach advice from YourTango: