Have you ever met somebody for the first time and felt it was impossible to get the conversation to flow? We have all been there, and some of us tend to struggle with this more than others. But even for those of you who normally feel at ease chatting with people, have you ever wondered: how good are you really – at the art of conversation?
Written by: Mauricio Barrientos Somarribas and Tatiana Álvarez Giovannucci
What is a conversation, anyway?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a conversation as an “oral exchange of sentiments, observations, opinions, or ideas”. Conversations allow us to peer into the minds of other human beings, to get a glimpse of their reality. This implies that improving our ability to engage other people and discuss various subjects can help us open our perspectives and enhance our understanding of the world. However, to improve our conversational skills, we must first understand how conversations unfold.
The infamous small talk
A casual conversation will usually begin with some small talk. Small talk is a type of conversation in which “the social function is more important than the content being discussed”. This implies that the conversation will revolve around common topics that all participants will feel comfortable discussing and will likely have something to say about.
As our definition suggests, the implicit rules and functions of small talk depend on the sociocultural context. In the USA and Latin America, for example, people will easily engage in small talk with friends and strangers alike. It wouldn’t take long for a Spanish or Italian person to start chatting about culture, food or politics. In contrast, in countries like Sweden or Finland, small talk with strangers is not so common; it might disturb their privacy. Even in more familiar settings, people will respectfully take turns and wait for the person talking to finish their idea. Some people even consider small talk unnecessary, since it usually implies that the topics discussed lack depth or meaning. So the question arises: would we fare better in a world where conversations were limited to those with a specific purpose?
The answer is probably no: small talk plays an important role in facilitating social interaction in our daily life. It allows us to sense the general state of mind of people in our environment before engaging in a more functional conversation. It enables us to meet new people: e.g. foreigners might have a hard time approaching locals (and therefore, integrating) in places where small talk is infrequent. It is during these first interactions that we get a feeling for the person and his/her interests. Small talk also helps maintain a cordial environment at work, fills up space to avoid uncomfortable silences and finally, for recreation: some people just really enjoy talking.
But not all talk is created equal
Despite its many uses, the downside of small talk is that it alone cannot build genuine connections with others. It rarely addresses feelings or strong opinions; personal or conflicting topics such as politics or religion are usually avoided. And even when we do have something to share, we easily surrender to small talk many times because it allows to escape from an uncomfortable truth: people judge and disagree.
Unfortunately, the fear of confronting our disagreements, learning to negotiate and reaching agreement is reflected in phenomena like Brexit or the rise of Trump: people are not willing to understand each other. Social media does not seem to help: why bother talking to somebody who disagrees with you when the phone in your pocket offers hundreds who agree?
A study in the late 90s led by psychologist Arthur Aron showed that an intimate conversation of 45 minutes can lead to a feeling of close connection between strangers. The study paired unrelated persons and handed them a predefined set of questions that both individuals had to answer. The questions were designed to be personal, and ranged from easy (“Would you like to be famous? In what way?”) to more complex and intimate (“Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?”). It was found that couples discussing the personal questions developed a sense of closeness that was not present in a control group that engaged in small talk. The study concluded that self-disclosure and reciprocity are key factors to achieve the effect of connection. Where that newly-acquired closeness can lead is uncertain – perhaps it was only a nice dinner, but it could also become a close friendship or even a long-lasting relationship. One thing is for certain: you will probably learn something new, or feel something different. Perhaps that person will no longer feel like a stranger, and that feels good somehow.
Meeting and truly connecting with other people through conversation can be a rewarding experience. However, if we introduce ourselves and start directly with something like ‘Hey, I just met you, but my dog died and I have never felt more alone’ we will more likely end up in an awkward situation. So, how do we learn to have more frequent and better conversations? We looked for advice from more experienced buddies and found the following to be the key exercises to train your conversational muscle.
Starting a conversation with a stranger has many challenges. And for many of us, the thought of having to endure the small talk phase is not really appealing. Why do we hate it so much? Catherine Blyth, author of the book “The Art of Conversation” believes it is not really because of the banal nature of the topics discussed, but because of how silly it makes us feel. That self-awareness. Talking to a person we barely know, constantly switching topics to avoid an awkward silence, all while trying to simultaneously maintain both their and our interest in the conversation demands tons of energy. It’s best to just relax! Be genuine and change the focus from what we should say next, to what they are saying.
If we made it through the warm-up phase, we will probably start to feel more comfortable. Adventure time! Break some barriers and jump into deeper, more meaningful topics. To keep the conversation flowing: be present and listen sincerely. We take this for granted, but it is actually a skill to develop. This requires keeping our ears open (and more importantly, a wide open mind) to really understand what the other means rather than politely waiting for them to finish to make our point. Be genuinely interested, ask follow-up questions and comment from your own insight, but don’t make it about yourself.
When facing people of opposing worldviews, be respectful: if you want someone to consider your point of view, why would you be inflexible about theirs? If both sides avoid attacking each other, we might get surprised. This is especially relevant nowadays, to reduce unnecessary divisiveness among us. Argue facts with facts, and be willing to admit when you don’t know. A discussion is not something that you win, but a place where you learn and grow as a person.
Finally, we should also take care of being understood. Three essentials: honesty, brevity and clarity. Radio journalist Celeste Headlee said it clearly in her fabulous TEDtalk: ‘Good conversation is like a miniskirt: short enough to retain interest but long enough to cover the subject’.
Take home message
People’s realities are worlds apart, which often leads to disagreements and misunderstanding. Improving our conversations can help us understand other people and perhaps reveal what it is what we share that makes us human.