When patients share these concerns, I remind them that being a good conversationalist isn’t a talent — it’s a skill. And with some practice, we all can master the art of what experts call “conversational chemistry.”
This chemistry flourishes when a conversation makes both parties feel heard, understood and cared for. Often, we share this “spark” with people we know well. For instance, if your bestie is in a funk, you may know that telling a joke will cheer them up, or that asking questions helps your teen problem-solve when they’re upset.
On the podcast “Speaking of Psychology,” Michael Yeomans, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Imperial College Business School in London, says we can apply these skills in our less intimate interactions as well.
In his research, Yeomans has found that all conversations come with goals. At a holiday party, for example, you may want to have a “fun” conversation, but a business meeting may require the power of persuasion.
Identifying your goals is one way to champion more fulfilling conversations. And research suggests that meaningful chats can foster a sense of belonging, which fills our social cups.
Here are some ways to make your conversations sparkle.
Meeting someone new? Ask novel questions.
When it comes to small talk, many of us rely on well-worn conversation starters such as, “How are you?” or “How’s it going?” And while there’s nothing wrong with these questions, many of us don’t answer them honestly.
Instead, consider a novel approach. Try these questions: “What is one thing you’re really looking forward to this holiday season?” or “What was one highlight of your year?”
Questions like these convey curiosity, which opens up conversations. It also shows that you’re interested in learning more about the other person, which tells them that they matter.
Hoping to reconnect? Try a creative icebreaker.
Icebreakers aren’t only for the board room. They can also foster deeper intimacy with family and friends. “What is one fun fact about yourself that you’ve never shared?” or “What’s something that made you really happy this year?” are creative questions to strike up chats.
If you’re hosting a big family dinner or work party, including fun icebreakers such as “If you were a celebrity, who would you be?” or “What’s one song that sums up your personality?” can get the conversational ball rolling, which can be enjoyable for everyone.
Tired of chitchat? Make talk meaningful.
Holiday soirees aren’t always conducive to long chats. However, research shows that conversations don’t need to be lengthy to feel meaningful.
What builds connection is what researchers call “meaningful talk.” It’s sharing something that matters to you and inviting others to do the same. And these types of chats don’t need to be confessionals or give you a vulnerability hangover.
Sharing something purposeful can promote closeness and reduce loneliness. This could be discussing your intentions for the new year or some wisdom that’s changed your life for the better. Or maybe it’s talking about a volunteer project or the best book you’ve read this year.
Shy? Come up with a party plan.
If you’re shy, mingling at a big party can feel just as stressful as interviewing for a new job. To ease stress, I encourage my patients to come up with a “party plan.” For example, bringing a friend or limiting how long you’ll stay can help you feel empowered.
New social scenes can also be an opportunity to take a “safe risk.” This can be something small — saying “hi” to someone new or initiating a brief conversation — even if it’s awkward at first.
While stretching our social muscles can be uncomfortable, it allows us to experience the joy that human interactions can bring.
Looking for happiness? Express care.
In our fast-paced world, affection is often expressed with emojis in a text message or “likes” on social media. But in-person conversations are an opportunity to show care, even with those we don’t know as well.
For instance, if you’re talking with someone you just met, you might say, “I’ve really enjoyed learning more about you,” or “Thanks for introducing yourself; it was wonderful to meet you.”
With those in our social circles, we can take things further by sharing a compliment or offering support. Small gestures such as telling a colleague that you value their collaboration, offering a friend some help or letting someone know it’s nice to see them can convey affection.
One study found that kind acts increased “eudaimonic well-being,” which is associated with self-acceptance and vitality, while a separate study found that altruism can reduce stress and boost happiness. In addition, verbal expressions of care can be just as powerful as physical touch.
Want to convey empathy? Follow up.
Whether you reconnect with an old friend or make a new one, plan to follow up. I encourage my patients to be specific. For example, instead of saying, “Let’s get together soon,” say, “I’ll email you next week about grabbing coffee in the new year.”
Conversations aren’t always joy-filled. You may bump into someone who’s struggling in some way. They may be heartbroken about world events or sad because a loved one died. Or perhaps they’re facing a scary illness or job uncertainty.
In these cases, your kindness doesn’t need to stop once the conversation ends. Make a point to check in. Even sending a handwritten note that says, “I’m thinking of you,” expresses empathy, which goes a long way.
Juli Fraga, PsyD, is a psychologist with a private practice in San Francisco.
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