The concept is this: when you're talking to people about stuff, rather than trying to connect the dots in your own mind (i.e. jump to conclusions or make assumptions), hold back a bit on that tendency and ask another open ended question. Simple, but it'll make a difference in what you learn, how open people are to you, and how much you connect with them.
For me, this means I end up talking a lot with strangers in spite of what my mother always told me (I think it's a lot safer as an old guy like me, and it was good advice when I was a kid).
People traveling with me sometimes think it's weird, or get uncomfortable, but I find out very interesting things through this process. Let me share a few recent examples:
On a recent trip to London, I was walking near Trafalgar Square, on my way back to my hotel after dinner with a colleague. A guy was selling "The Big Issue," which is a newspaper that homeless people sell as part of a program to help them get back on their feet. I didn't have any cash with me, but I spent a few minutes talking with the guy, starting with "So...what's your story?"
The guy told me everybody calls him "Kouff" (I'm guessing at the spelling) and that he used to be an officer in the Hungarian army but he moved to London for a change. He says he has a brother who is working in the US with the US government, and that his brother told him where Osama bin Laden is. At this point, I'm intrigued.
Kouff says he will tell me where bin Laden is, if I promise to split the reward money with him if I can find him. OK, no problem. So he tells me bin Laden is on an Apache Tribal Reservation somewhere in the US, and I should go there and find him. Interesting.
On the off chance that I run into bin Laden, I asked Kouff how I can get him the money if I get the reward. "Easy - put it in the post to me. I'm Kouff with the red hair. Everybody know me."
And if you happen to find bin Laden based on Kouff's tip, please give him half the reward.
This past weekend, I stopped at a rest area during a trip with a group of Boy Scouts. They were in the restroom and I was hanging around outside waiting for them. A guy was standing there having a cigarette and I said hello. He asked me some questions about my Scout uniform (I'm one of the adult leaders, and we wear our uniform shirts on road trips). He told me the uniforms were different in Ukraine - they were black, and he said they looked a lot tougher.
I asked him what got him to move to the US. He told me they left because they didn't have freedom to believe what they wanted, so they left as soon as they could. For example, he said his mother is Christian and one time the government put her in a cell for 3 days without food because she wouldn't tell them "there is no Jesus or God."
He loves living in the US, and he is now a citizen - as are his wife, his kids, and his mother. He told me, "Never forget how important your freedom is in this country - I thank God for freedom every day because I remember what it was like."
Sergei told me the best memory he has of life in Ukraine was when they found out he was leaving and the KGB tore up his military passport and told him he was not allowed to come back to Russia.
Even the "normal" stories are good for you
Not all the stories are that unusual, but they are still good for my perspective and I usually get something good out of the interaction.
Through this approach, I've spoken with people who are missionaries in foreign countries; people who have great advice about restaurants, books, and gadgets; people who are afraid of flying that I've been able to comfort; and more. But you don't get the memorable stories without hearing the normal ones, too.
So think about it - maybe try talking with a stranger every now and again, and see if you find a few memorable stories of your own. (And, of course, be sensible and safe about it.)
If you find any memorable stories, I'd love to hear them.