Starting a Conversation with a Stranger – The C.A.T.S.I. Framework

Three things that intimidate me:

  • A ghost pepper
  • The ocean at nighttime
  • Having to meet new people for the first time

If you are like me, I can’t help you with the first two, but for the third one—meeting new people for the first time—I created a clever little strategy to help me not only start a conversation but also build a connection with someone that I’m meeting for the first time.

In this post, I’ll share my easy-to-remember strategy called The C.A.T.S.I. Framework for Starting Conversations with Strangers.

You know, because cats are so great at making friends.

Two Princeton psychologists, Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov, found through research that it takes only  0.1 seconds  (a tenth of a second) to form a first impression of a stranger. That’s faster than my decision to hit snooze in the morning—and trust me, that’s lightning fast.

Couple that with the fact that up to 12% of the US population suffers from SAD (Social anxiety disorder), 29% of people report being most nervous about “not knowing what to say or how to interact” when meeting new people or socializing, according to a survey by Forbes Health, and the general sense of feeling awkward when meeting new people or starting conversations is a shared experience, particularly among introverts.

That’s why having a plan for starting a conversation is critical. This way, you won’t get flooded with emotions in the moment and freeze up.

What you need is C.A.T.S.I. And no, it’s not a new cat breed designed to be exceptionally sociable. That’s impossible, though; I’d sign up for that Kickstarter.

Breaking Down C.A.T.S.I.

The C stands for Compliment:

Begin with a genuine compliment. It can be about their attire, a visible accessory, a unique hairstyle or color, something they are holding, a tattoo, or even their energy. This isn’t about flattery; it’s noticing something noteworthy and letting them know.

Just make sure your compliment isn’t, ‘Nice shoes. Do you want to be friends?’ That’s not a compliment; it’s a cry for help.

Genuine compliments are rare nowadays, so when people hear them, they tend to cause a pattern of interruption and get the person to look up and pay attention—just in time for you to move on to “A.”

The A stands for Ask a Question:

Now that you have their attention, we need to hold it by getting them to talk. The easiest way to do that is to pick a question that is easy to answer. Don’t ask them about the first time they cried. Instead, focus on questions like, “Is this your first time at this event?” or “Did you have to travel far to get here?” It’s also very natural to follow up on the compliment you just gave them, “I love the stickers on your computer bag. Do you collect stickers?”

Avoid yes-or-no questions. They end conversations faster than my cat decides I’m not worth waking up for.

Now that you’ve opened the door to a conversation, it’s time to move on to the next step, “T.”

The T stands for Talking More:

We want to keep the conversation going around the same topic. But now, you can also share about yourself. The goal here is to go back and forth. You talk. They talk. But remember what Dale Carnegie once said in his famous book, How to Win Friends and Influence People:

“You’ll make a thousand times more friends by being interested than interesting. You have two ears and one mouth; use them in that proportion.”

So, if you asked about the event, keep expanding on their response or your initial compliment. Ask what drew them in if they mention it’s their first conference. If it’s about the jacket, ask about fashion and where they shop.

Now that the conversation is in full swing, it’s time to move on to the “S.”

The S stands for Similarities:

Based on the conversation, identify a point of connection. Maybe you’ve attended similar events, shared a hobby, or disliked the same things.

“No way, I’m also a huge fan of buying my clothes at the Renaissance Faire. Have you ever visited the one downtown with the massive Turkey Legs?”

Now that you’ve established some shared interests and connections, it’s time to move on to the last part, the “I.”

The I stands for Introduce Yourself:

Yes, it sounds backward, but introducing yourself after establishing rapport is more memorable. “Oh, by the way, my name’s Tom. Believe it or not, I’m speaking later today about icebreakers and dance floors.”

And that’s the entire C.A.T.S.I. framework. Let me run through an example of the whole process at once.

The Process of C.A.T.S.I.

At a recent event, I noticed someone walk in holding an investing book that I happened to know and love called “Poor Charlie’s Almanack.” I walked over and initiated operation C.A.T.S.I.

“Hey, that’s a great book you have there! I don’t know too many people that have one, let alone carry it around.” (Compliment)

He chuckled, explaining he bought it off a recommendation from a YouTube video on investing. I followed up with, “That’s great! Is this your first time at the meetup?” (Ask A Question)

“Yes, I’ve never been, but I was curious after talking to someone in the cafe about it.”

“Nice. Well, if you love that book, then you’ll probably love this meetup too. Have you started reading the book yet?” (Talking More) We then discussed investing, Warren Buffet, day trading, and DOGEcoin. All were topics we discovered a mutual love for (Similarities), and then I ended our encounter with, “Oh, by the way, I’m Tom, and I’m one of the hosts for the event, so you’ll probably see me on stage later. It was nice to meet you.” (Introduce Yourself)

We exchanged contacts, and I even invited him to our next meeting.

And scene…

And there you have it! If you’ve followed C.A.T.S.I. correctly, congratulations, you’re now officially more sociable than any cat ever. Take that, Whiskers!

The C.A.T.S.I. Framework isn’t just about starting conversations; it’s about creating meaningful connections beyond the initial encounter. It turns the daunting task of meeting new people into an opportunity for genuine interaction and mutual discovery.

Quick Recap:

C = Compliment: Kick things off with a genuine compliment to catch their interest and make a positive first impression.

A = Ask A Question: Engage them further by inquiring about something relevant to the setting or your initial compliment.

T = Talking More: Delve deeper into the conversation based on their response, building rapport.

S = Similarities: Find common ground to create a connection, making the interaction more personal and memorable.

I = Introduce Yourself: After establishing a connection, introduce yourself. This sequence makes your introduction more impactful and memorable.

Remember, everyone has a story to tell; sometimes, all it takes is a compliment, question, or shared laugh to uncover it. So, next time you’re at an event, staring down the room filled with potential new connections, channel your inner social cat with C.A.T.S.I. And who knows, you might have more friends than you can count on one paw.

Give it a try and turn those intimidating first meetings into memorable connections. After all, if a cat can make friends and still keep its cool, so can you.

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