Does the thought of making small talk with a stranger make your skin crawl? The perception that you'll be judged based on your first impression halt any ability to carry on a normal conversation? Does your mind constantly race with false truths about where the direction of the conversation may lead? If any of these seem familiar to you, join the club!

It’s been four years since a college writing course completely shattered the way I approach conversing with strangers. The assignment was to interview a complete stranger. Find someone in a coffee shop; ask questions to your waiter--pick your person. While reading the assignment rubric, all I could do was feel my heart drop into the cold high school desk I sat in. My mind was racing as to how I would even approach this task.

Thus began the whirlwind of anxious thoughts in my mind. Would someone turn me down flat and not participate? What happened if the person I chose was a “weirdo”? Basically I started to brainstorm all the ways I could make this assignment as easy for myself as possible. So I decided to email all the questions to a regular who frequented the coffee shop I worked at (I’m sorry Mr. Rademacher if you read this--please still keep me on your favorites list!). Technically she was a stranger (kind of). I knew her name, the coffee she drank (Grande brewed coffee…usually the Michigan Cherry), and the type of car she drove. Other than those minor details, I knew nothing about her. It seemed like a thought out plan in order to avoid an uncomfortable encounter.

Seeing as I have the WORST guilty conscience, once I submitted the paper, I instantly regretted not taking the assignment for what it was intended for. Sure, I gathered basic facts about the woman, but I didn't get to discover what information she may have shared had we engaged in a conversation. Mr. Rademacher wanted us to learn someone’s story, to understand that every person we may encounter has something valuable to share…and I blew it! This was the turning point in how I would pursue relationships throughout college and for post grad life.

From that class forward, if there was something I admired about someone…I told him or her. I wasn’t afraid if they thought I was a major creeper (it took some getting used to), or what they would think of me afterwards. Sometimes I’d write someone a handwritten note, other times I would just Facebook message him or her.

The underlying purpose was to recognize great things about someone, and let them know that quality was being noticed.

Because of this lifestyle change, I have developed new friendships. One friendship for example is with my sweet friend Jenn; a friendship that began because of a Facebook message. She spoke at a meeting while we were in college, and her kindness and charity work was beyond impressive. I knew after that meeting I needed to let her know how awesome I found her infectious personality. I mean how could you not be friends with someone who replies to a Facebook message like this:

Me (embrace the awkward intro--I probably could’ve done better):Okay I am not trying to seem like a creeper or a stalker I promise. As a part of Lent, I decided instead of giving something up, I'd write a note to someone who I felt I needed to say something to or to thank them! And I am sorry if I scare you off, but you remind me of one of my friends who goes to school in Indiana. She's a genuinely sweet person, and the way that you carry yourselves are so similar…”

Jenny: "Oh my goodness I do not think you are creepy at all! God has urged me to tell people things (even if I barely know them) and I try my best to do just that, but sometimes I chicken out and always regret it later, so I commend your sense of courage!!

To be completely honest, you have just made my day. Week. Month, even! Words could not even begin to describe how much it means to me that you view me in this way! I am genuinely honored because I honestly admire you!"

Ever since those Facebook conversations, I’ve had many life chats with Jenn, many laughs, and coffee dates that I’ll always cherish.

Taking that leap of faith and reaching out to someone could be the start of a friendship. The kind affirmations you share with someone could truly alter their day or life for the better. All it does is take a minute of your time, and I promise you’ll feel better after doing so.

As the New Year starts, let’s shift into building intentional conversations with people, familiar and unfamiliar. Bust out of that comfort zone, or gently chip away at it- whatever works for you. Learn to embrace the challenge Mr. Rademacher gave me four years ago (without the cheating yourself portion of course).

Reach out and spread kindness, grab coffee with someone you’ve always admired. Life may have a way of creating a friendship out of a simple message such as, “I think you’re really great because…”