Every conversation is an opportunity to cultivate real, human connections—whether that’s by nurturing existing relationships or creating new ones. Having meaningful conversations can help us process and learn from our individual experiences, together.
Still, it can be hard to go beyond the standard, “How are you?” Often, “How are you?” can feel like an overwhelming question. So, we say, “Good!” or “Hanging in there,” because how we’re really doing either feels like too much to unpack or too heavy to share with someone else.
Often we find ourselves talking at each other, against each other, or over each other, and not with each other. In these moments, we miss the chance to learn from people who challenge our assumptions; conversations that encourage us to reflect on our existing perceptions, create new ideas and progress mentally. So, why do we have such a hard time having conversations that make us feel more connected, fulfilled, and—ultimately—happier?.
It’s helpful to think of conversations as a microcosm of a relationship. There needs to be a give and take in the sense that both parties are teaching and learning, talking, and listening. And like a relationship, a good conversation creates an environment where both people feel respected and safe to voice their thoughts. This trust establishes a strong foundation for the conversation to build around. The good news is that most people want to connect on a deeper level. Here are a few tips to help you do just that.
1. Start with curiosity
Whether it’s with your friends, family, or Uber driver, every conversation is an invitation to learn something. Curiosity keeps us engaged in the conversation. Not only that, but we learn faster and remember more when we actually want to learn it. It’s pretty likely that the person you’re talking to knows something you don’t, whether it’s about an experience you’re having, a place you’ve always wanted to visit, or something they saw on the news. So if you don’t know something, ask. If someone mentions something you want to learn more about, ask. If someone has a different opinion than yours, ask questions to help you find out why. Curiosity pushes the conversation beyond surface-level small talk and helps us feel closer to the person with whom we’re speaking.
2. Avoid self-fulfilling questions
We tend to ask questions that push our own expectations and bias onto others. When we ask, “Did that make you mad?” or “Were you happy?” we will likely get a “yes” or “no” answer. Instead, asking, “How did that make you feel?” invites the other person to steer the conversation without judgment and to answer without fear of criticism.
Wording questions more open-endedly also encourages the other person to process what they are experiencing and how they are feeling on a deeper level. You can expect to get more complex, surprising, and illuminating answers this way, which helps you better understand and can help the conversation go deeper than a “yes” or a “no.”
3. Let go
Not every thought that drifts into your head needs a mic. Sometimes, it’s better to let thoughts pass without saying them out loud. Don’t stop listening to or interrupt the other person because you want to make sure you don’t forget to share a clever comment or story. Make sure to let the other person fully finish speaking—and if what you wanted to say is no longer relevant or doesn’t contribute to pushing the conversation further, then let it go.
4. Practice empathy
Empathy is the capacity to set aside your own biases and to understand someone else’s feelings based on that person’s own unique experiences, perspective, and frame of mind. In order to empathize, it’s important to acknowledge that we are all biased and that actively working to keep it in check is a lifelong commitment. When listening with empathy, you’re making an active decision to understand someone else’s opinions and values without criticism. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with what they are saying, but you are respecting their right to voice it and be heard.
Ali Stone Photography