Take What Their Defenses Give (Issue 620)

In which we are reminded to assess potential conversation partners before we barge in.

Cambridge, Massachusetts. Saturday night. Dinner time.

I descended four flights of stairs in the Eliot Street parking garage, through the sticky sweet cloud of some poor undergraduate’s over-applied cologne, and out the door to John F. Kennedy Street, headed to meet my wife at Yen Ching for a quick bite before the Back Bay Chorale’s performance of Carmina Burana at Harvard University’s Sanders Theater. In other words, a pretty good night ahead.

As I walked, I felt the light sprinkle of rain drops on my face – the promised all-day rain just beginning at dinner time. “Great!,” I delighted, softly,  to myself. “We need the rain.”

I reached the corner of JFK Street and Mount Auburn Street. As I crossed JFK Street, I noticed a college-aged woman in shorts and tee-shirt standing, waiting to cross Mount Auburn.  Her head was tilted slightly back, her face to the sky, eyes half closed, smiling.

“You danced for rain, and now it’s coming,” I said to her, somewhat softly.

She turned to me and smiled. “Yes, I love the rain,” she said. “Didn’t dance and I love the rain.”  She smiled again.

“Taking a break from finals?”  I asked.

“Yes,” she said. “Almost finished.”

We crossed the street together and talked about her exams and her academic concentration as we walked for about thirty yards, when she said goodbye and peeled off into a take-out place.  Maybe she was hungry, maybe she’d had enough of me, not sure.  Either way, a delightful, brief conversation.

My son the sports fan once shared with me the secret of a good offensive strategy in football. “Take what the defense is giving you,” he said.  “No defense is perfect.  Where ever they are, there’s somewhere they ain’t”  Or words to that effect.

The same with approaching complete strangers on the street, at conferences, wherever.

To some extent, they all have defenses up, they (none of them) really WANT to talk to people who are selling stuff and at some times  the defenses are stronger than at others.  But wherever they are, there’s somewhere they ain’t, and we can open conversations by taking what their defenses are giving us.

In the case of my brief friend on JFK street, she was giving me “I love the rain” as a way to start conversation.  I can think of a dozen other things I could have said (e.g. “Nice evening,” or “I like your shirt” or “Finished with exams?”)  that might have triggered her defenses and caused her to run, ignore me, or glare at me. So, I took what her defenses were giving me:  her love of rain.

Whoever it is that we want to meet at conferences or Chamber of Commerce meetings, for example, a little study of them before the meeting or during the meeting (i.e. overhearing a conversation they’re having with someone else) will help us understand where they “are” and where they “ain’t.” Look at: What they’re wearing, who they’re hanging out with, what they’re talking about.

Take what their defenses are giving. Start conversation there.

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