“What do you say to those old people?” I asked my sister that question when she began volunteering as a companion to the elderly. At the time, I was about thirteen years old.

Yes, the phrasing makes me seem like a disrespectful, ageist teenager, but that was not the case. I loved being in the company of my eldest relatives and close family friends, some of whom behaved like grandparents. One precious lady in her late nineties, my grandmother’s first cousin, always captivated me with her early childhood memories of the historic Charleston, SC, earthquake—of 1886!

In truth, the idea of chatting with strangers, not seniors, is what seemed daunting to me, but not to my “big” sister. While only fifteen months apart in age, she and I were opposites in terms of our personalities. I was shy. She was outgoing and, therefore, the appropriate one to work as a candy-striper at a nursing home in our town.

(To clarify, my sister never painted red stripes on peppermint candies. The term for her role came from her uniform—a red-and-white striped pinafore worn over a white dress—that hospitals and other caregiving facilities once required of their female volunteers.)

Admiring her ability to interact so naturally with other people’s “grands” and “greats,” I sincerely wanted to know what my sister would say to engage the elderly ladies (mostly) with whom she kept company. Even though I had no good suggestions for topics, her answer seemed outrageous me.

“I say whatever I want,” she replied. “That’s why they love me. We talk about everything.”

From growing up, getting over much of my shyness and, especially, becoming a writer, which entails at least as much interviewing as writing, I eventually realized how right my sister was about relating to “old people.”

Substitute “old” for any classification—another age group, an occupation, a religion, a nationality, a political affiliation, etc.—and consider the following tips to break the ice and maintain an easygoing, give-and-take conversation with “them”:

Preparedness

Learn what you can about the individual you’ll encounter in advance of meeting. Note anything you two may have in common, such as growing up where the other attended college or enjoying the same sport.

Think of what you’d like to learn from him or her. Seek topics that most regard as neutral or positive—i.e., regional foods or music.

If someone who knows you both is introducing you, ask that person to provide a little background in advance. If the introduction is spontaneous, take advantage of the facilitator’s insights to help you ease into a conversation. “How did the two of you meet?” is an easy starter.

Importantly, unless you are conducting a formal interview, avoid memorizing a person’s history to the point that you’re regurgitating facts about him or her. That could make you seem creepy.


Posture

While striving to let the connection form naturally, smile and be friendly. If you’re on the shy side, attempt to loosen up. If your tendency is to take over and possibly overwhelm, you may want to tone things down. Don’t pounce, for instance, but extend your hand to shake hands, if appropriate. If the other person is sitting, then also sit. Lean forward to show interest. If the other person is hard of hearing, then speak clearly and directly to him or her. Establish eye contact. Silence your phone; put it away.


Presentation

Focusing on the other person, such as by asking questions and encouraging him or her to elaborate, is often an effective initial step in helping someone feel comfortable and willing to engage. In fact, many fuel conversations with leading, open-ended questions and remarks: “What did you enjoy most about living in Europe?” or “Meeting Dr. Edwards must have been fascinating!”

Some, however, tend to share information about themselves upon learning from others first. If that’s the case, then do the talking. In the process, however, inject questions and comments that signify your interest in the other person: “I recently edited a memoir about overcoming serious challenges in life. Is that theme of your book?”


Perception

Besides listening to what the other says, pay attention to body language. Is the person fidgeting, looking around for an escape, and folding arms, or is he or she establishing eye contact, leaning in, and nodding?

Look for other cues, such as puzzled or blank expressions, that probably indicate the person does not understand your rationale or possibly your actual words.  If you two speak with different accents, make sure the other doesn’t totally miss or misinterpret what you’re saying.

Likewise, politely ask for clarification if a word or expression is foreign to you. Often, making light of such differences brings people together, while standing on ceremony (maintaining a high degree of formality because one party is afraid of offending the other) creates distance.


Peppermint

The peppermint-striped uniforms like my sister wore are no longer in style (many would say they were sexist), yet the motif served well as a billboard: “I’m here for you.” Whatever the willing volunteer would offer, whether a magazine to read, a partner in a game of cards, or an afternoon outdoors, the vision of someone dressed in that manner lifted the spirits of many.

Clearly, you don’t need to look like a candy-striper to convey that you’re making the encounter about the other person, not focusing on what’s in it for me. With that mindset and approach, you’ll build more meaningful relationships over time and receive more from them than you ever imagined. Just ask my sister, who remembers her candy-striper moments among her most joyful and fulfilling to this day.

My best to you,

Sallie W. Boyles, a.k.a. Write Lady

Thoughts or questions? Please contact Sallie Boyles, owner of Write Lady Inc., to exchange ideas about effective communications and gain from professional writing and editing services. Receive monthly tips and insights by subscribing at www.writelady.com.