Conversation Storytelling

Recipe to a great conversation

Imagine that. You meet someone for the first time. Let’s say this is a new colleague at your workplace. You start a conversation. He is telling you some story, then you make a joke and just feel comfortable while chatting with him. It’s so easy to talk. You don’t need to look for artificial topics or boring small talks. It’s natural and you feel like you’ve known each other for ages!

On the other hand, sometimes you meet a person who is exactly the opposite. You see that person in a social room and you’ve already feel the pain. Even if you strike up the conversation, it’s simply unpleasant. You need to think about the next sentence you’re going to say. Simply put, there is no flow. No chemistry between both of you. And the worst thing is that after such talk you feel like you’ve lost all of your energy.

So, why it’s like that?

We focus on ourselves

In most conversations people tend to share information about themselves rather than discussing other topics [1]. We want to “sell” ourselves by using self-focused presentations. Especially when we meet someone new. Ourselves is the most interesting topic for us. But does it really help us in having interesting conversation? Actually, it makes us stay focused on our interests rather than having engaging chat and building high-quality relationships.

To support that thesis, one study of conversations in relaxed social settings [2] suggests that people spend two thirds of their time talking about their personal experience. That’s pretty egocentric! Another interesting fact that was proven during the experiment is that males are more inclined to promote themselves than females.

So, how to create such ‘pleasant’ vibe? Simply put, how to become a great person that others love to chat with?

Asking question increases liking

Although it seems like an obvious thing, people tend to forget that great conversation is not only about beautiful words and open body posture. According to study [3] performed by scientists from Harvard University asking question can be one of our most valuable tools because it increases liking. When we ask people questions they feel like we care about them and their opinions. 

“We suggest that asking questions increases liking because doing so indicates responsiveness, a desirable interpersonal construct (…)”

During an interesting experiment [3] 110 men and women were gathered in different speed-dating sessions. Each person went on 4 minute date and filled out brief survey. The most important question was about the willingness to go on a second date. As you can expect the result demonstrated that people who asked more follow-up questions were asked on more second dates.

Questions indicate responsiveness and that’s what we expect from a good talker. Expressing that we care have many other positive factors. It indicates positive affect, warmth, curiosity and empathy. Remember about asking questions when you talk to others! Simple and intuitive advice often neglected by people.

Listen instead of thinking about the next sentence

I know you’ve probably heard about all those active listening stuff and how to learn it. That you need to nod your head, ask clarifying questions and smile. There are so many books and articles about active listening that it’s even hard to choose which one to read first! But you know what? 

You can’t listen actively… if you don’t actually listen to the other person. It doesn’t make sense to fake active listening if you’re not interested in your speaker. How often do you think about the next sentence you’re going to tell while talking to someone? 

When you’re too focused on your next perfect sentence, you lose the focus on what someone else is telling you at the moment. You just miss the opportunity to hear something interesting. Something that might be relevant to the other person e.g. name of a child, date of birthday or vacation plans. All the information you hear can be turned into follow-up topics and questions you can ask. But you don’t listen. You just think how to build next beautiful sentences and how to shine like a star.

Forget about shallowness

If you really want to have a great conversation, make sure you go a bit deeper with the topics you’re discussing. Of course it’s not applicable to small talks and other brief chats you have in elevator or while doing the shopping. But anytime you want to make a connection and have a meaningful discussion remember to engage a lot in the topics. And again that means asking more detailed questions. Simply put, going deeper.

shallow conversation

Let’s say someone is telling you that he was on vacation in Barcelona. You can obviously ask him where he was and how was that. But that’s just the beginning of the cool conversation. That’s something what everyone expects to hear. Instead of talking about yourself or going to the other topic, go deeper.

Go deeper

You can ask how did he like Spanish cuisine, La Rambla or Barceloneta. And if you don’t know what’s in Barcelona just ask what did he like the most and what is his opinion. Questions can be general. Then if he tells you that he loved Gaudi buildings then you got at least few follow-ups: 

  • go deeper with Gaudi buildings and ask about details
  • share your feelings about Gaudi’s architecture
  • ask if he has managed to go inside (maybe that’s what would you like to do)
  • ask whether he’s an architecture enthusiast
  • move conversation into more art and architecture oriented discussion

People are willing to open up and share interesting things when they feel comfortable. When they feel like they have your full and undivided attention. If you show them that you’re genuinely interested in what they’re telling you, then you got it! They will provide you plenty of interesting topics to discuss and you won’t need to think about the next sentences and topics.

Conclusion

Conversation is a fundamental human experience. It happens in many different contexts and is our most important tool which lets us build relationships. There is no single recipe to having great conversation. But there are definitely few tips you can consider while chatting with someone. Listen genuinely (don’t fake that), ask questions and don’t make conversation too shallow.

Being good conversationalist is not as difficult as it seems to be but it requires a lot of practice. And it means having a lot of different talks from the most difficult and unpleasant ones to easy and comfortable.

References

[1] Landis, M. H., Burtt, H. E. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 4(1), 81-89. 1924. A Study of Conversations.
[2] Robin Dunbar, Neill Duncan, Anna Marriott. Human Nature 8(3):231-246. September 1997. Human conversational behavior.
[3] Huang, K., M. Yeomans, A.W. Brooks, J. Minson, and F. Gino. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 113. September 2017. It Doesn’t Hurt to Ask: Question-asking Increases Liking.