Does talking help us to have a greater social connection? Five helpful steps can help us bond and avoid mistakes. “There is no such thing as conversation,” wrote novelist and literary critic Rebecca West in her collection of short stories The Harsh Voice. “It’s an illusion. There are monologues that intersect, that’s all.” In his opinion, our own words simply ignore the words of others without deep communication taking place.
Who has not been able to recognize that feeling at some point in their life? Whether we’re chatting with a barista or a close friend, we may be hoping to make a connection, but then leaving the talk is left with the feeling that our minds couldn’t meet. Much more after the long periods of isolation that we have lived through during the Coronavirus pandemic that make our thirst for social contact greater than ever. If this sounds familiar, it is possible that some tips can help you.
Over the past few years, psychologists studying the art of conversation have identified many of the barriers that stand in the way of a deeper connection and ways to remove them:
1. Ask questions
The first step may seem obvious, but it is often forgotten: if you want to have a meaningful dialogue with someone, instead of two “intersecting monologues,” you should make the effort to ask a few questions.
Consider the research of Karen Huang, an assistant professor at Georgetown University, USA. While studying for a Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior at Harvard University, Huang invited more than 130 participants to his lab and asked them to chat in pairs for 15 minutes via an online instant messaging system.
He found that, even in this short period of time, the number of questions being asked varied widely, from around four or less at the low end to nine or more at the high end. Through a series of follow-up studies, Huang found that asking questions made a significant difference in the rapport between people.
Ask questions, but remember that not all questions are equally engaging. By analyzing conversations at a speed dating event, for example, she found that the number of questions asked by some of the singles could predict their chances of landing a second date.
Not all questions are equally charming: a follow-up that requires more information on a previous point is more attractive than a change of subject, or repeating what the other has already asked you.
Huang concluded that most people are not prepared to ask questions and that, to the detriment of our relationships, we enjoy talking about ourselves, but underestimate the benefits of letting others talk about them.
2. Attention with empathy
We are often told to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, but our empathy is rarely as precise as we think. One of the reasons for this is self-centeredness. “I use my own experience, my own mental states, as a proxy for yours,” says Nicholas Epley, professor of behavioral sciences at the University of Chicago.
In its most basic form, this self-centeredness can be noticed when we point to something in our physical environment without realizing that it is out of the other person’s line of sight, or when we overestimate someone’s knowledge of a topic that is familiar to us.
It can also lead us to think that someone is feeling the same as us, or that they have the same opinions, be it a preference for a particular restaurant or their views on a controversial issue.
Interestingly, Epley’s research has shown that our egocentricity is worse when we are with an acquaintance, rather than a stranger, a phenomenon called “close communication bias.”
“We often perceive that our close friends and partners are similar to us, so we assume they know what we know,” explains Epley. With strangers, we can be a bit more cautious in making those assumptions.
You can try to solve this problem with conscious “perspective taking”, in which you deliberately imagine what the other person is thinking and feeling, based on your existing knowledge of them.
3. Familiarity vs. originality
What about our picks for the topic of conversation? It is natural to assume that people prefer originality, we should always try to convey something new and exciting, rather than tell someone something they already know. But it’s not like that.
According to research by Gus Cooney, a social psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, USA, we suffer a “novelty penalty” when we talk about something new, compared to a topic that is already familiar to the listener.
If we are talking about something completely new, our audience may not have enough knowledge to understand everything we are saying. However, if we are talking about something that is already familiar to our audience, listeners can fill in those gaps themselves.
Describing in great detail the incredible experiences we have had, bringing them to life, can help others to better connect with our experiences. The novelty penalty could explain why a description of an exotic vacation often doesn’t have as much impact when you tell your colleagues about it, unless they’ve been there themselves.
“When the experience is so incredible in your head that you can smell it, taste it and see all the colors, you just assume other people can do it too,” says Cooney. Suggesting that you could overcome the novelty penalty with a very tight narrative that provides a vivid impression of what you are describing.
4. Don’t be afraid to dig deeper
Many shared human experiences can be incredibly deep, even in light talk. Epley’s recent research shows that most people appreciate the opportunity to explore their innermost thoughts and feelings, even if they are talking to strangers.
Epley’s team asked pairs of participants who had not previously met to discuss questions such as: “If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, your future, or anything else, what would you like to know? “.
Most of the participants feared the exchanges would be too awkward, but the conversation flowed much more than they had predicted. They also felt a greater sense of connection and all this with a happier mood after the exchange. Honest conversations, although often complex, generate a greater connection between people, a happier mood and a lasting constructive feeling.
“In these deep conversations, you have access to another person’s mind and you can recognize that the other person really cares about you,” says Epley. “That can lead to a moving exchange of words, even if you never meet that person again.”
5. Tactful honesty over mindless kindness
Imagine for a moment that you are forced to speak honestly during every social interaction. How would your relationships go? A few years ago, Emma Levine, associate professor of Behavioral Sciences at the University of Chicago, and Taya Cohen, associate professor of Organizational Behavior at Carnegie Mellon University, decided to turn this thought experiment into reality.
They recruited 150 participants and divided them into three groups. The first group was asked to be “absolutely honest” in every conversation, at home and at work, for the next three days; The second group was told to be kind, caring, and considerate for the same period, while the last third were encouraged to behave normally.
Honest participants scored just as high on measures of pleasure and social connection over the three days as those who were told to be nice, and often found a lot of sense in the exchanges. “It seemed like it would be horrible,” says Cohen, “but participants reported being happy that they had honest conversations, even if they were difficult.”
Follow-up experiments further showed that honest communication turned out to be much more constructive than people predicted, and the benefits of frank disclosure about their general well-being continued for at least a week afterward.
It goes without saying that honesty is best served with a healthy dose of diplomacy. Cohen says you should think carefully about the timing of your comments, the way they are worded, and whether the person will have the opportunity to make use of the information.