The science of having a great conversation


If you’ve ever If you’ve ever talked to someone and later realized you’d better spend your time talking to a brick wall, you’ll surely agree with Rebecca West’s observation. “There’s no such thing as a conversation,” the novelist and literary critic wrote in her collection of stories. Harsh sounds“It’s an illusion. There’s interconnected monologues, that’s all.”

If someone feels that their conversation has no impact on those around them, this is the definition of existential isolation. You’ve probably experienced this on a bad date, at a terrible dinner party, or during an endless family gathering.

Psychological research has identified a number of habits and biases that create barriers between us and others – and if we want to build better relationships with those around us, we need to learn to overcome them. The good news is that improvements are very easy to put into practice. Small changes to our style of interaction can bring huge benefits.

Let’s start with the sins of inattention. “The art of conversation is the art of listening as well as of being heard,” said the early 19th-century essayist William Hazlitt in his essay. on writers’ conversationsPublished in 1820. “Some of the best speakers, for this reason, make the worst company.”

Hazlitt noted that many of his literary acquaintances—including Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Stendhal, and William Wordsworth—were so eager to demonstrate their wit and intelligence that they lacked the basic civility of listening to others. Instead he suggested we imitate the painter James Northcote, who he claimed was the best listener and consequently the best conversationalist of all the people he knew. Hazlitt wrote, “I never ate or drank with Mr. Northcote; but I have enjoyed conversing with him without any lack of pleasure ever since I can recollect.” Who wouldn’t want their acquaintances to feel that way?

The simplest way to achieve this is to ask more questions, yet surprisingly few people have been able to effectively develop this habit. While studying for a PhD in organizational behavior at Harvard University, Karen Huang invited over 130 participants to her lab and asked them to interact in pairs for a quarter of an hour via an online instant messenger. She found that, even in these 15 minutes, the rate at which people asked questions varied widely, from about four or fewer at the lowest level to nine or more at the highest level.

Asking more questions can make a big difference in someone’s likability. In a separate experiment, Huang’s team analyzed recordings of people’s conversations during speed-dating events. Some people consistently asked more questions than others, and this could predict their chances of getting a second date.

It’s easy to understand why questions are so appealing: they reflect your desire to build mutual understanding and give you a chance to validate each other’s experiences. But even if we ask a lot of questions, we may not be asking the right kind of questions. In his analysis, Huang considered six different categories of questions. You can see examples below:

1. Introductory
Hey how’s it going?

2. Follow-up
I am planning a trip to Canada.
Oh cool. Have you ever been there before?

3. Complete switch
I’m working at a dry cleaner.
What do you like to do for fun?

4. Partial switch
I’m not much of an outdoor lover, but I’m not opposed to the occasional hike or something.
Have you been to the beach in Boston often?


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