The latest sports score.
Those are among the go-to topics that many of us probably default to when we are in a conversation with someone.
But what if you want to move beyond that, and get to know someone a bit better?
Well, Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist, has some suggestions, based on responding to an email in today’s Wall Street Journal:
My workplace hosts weekly virtual happy hours over Zoom. It’s a nice idea in principle, but the meetings have been dull—we usually just end up talking about the latest coronavirus news. Is there a way to encourage better, deeper conversations? —
And here was Dan’s response:
The problem isn’t that your co-workers are unusually boring; rather, it’s the social norms for your meetings. Research has found that people usually gravitate toward small talk even when they crave connection, because sharing important things about ourselves can be socially risky.
I was part of a team of researchers working on how to foster deeper connections, and we designed an experiment involving 300 people at a networking event for financial advisers. Some of the participants were asked to socialize as they usually do, while others were given conversation cards with probing questions to ask, like “If you had to change one big decision you’ve made, what would it be?” or “What don’t you tell people on a first date?”
The results showed that those who asked deeper questions had more meaningful discussions. You could try something similar in your Zoom happy hours by giving everyone a question to ask their colleagues. To get started, take a look at Irrational Labs’ “No Small Talk” cards or psychologist Arthur Aron’s list of 36 “closeness-generating” questions.
So I thought I’d take a look at some of these questions.
Here are a few samples of those No Small Talk cards:
- With which religions do you most and least identify? Why?
- When were you last outside your comfort zone?
- What do you like most and least about your appearance?
And here is the link to a list of Arthur Aron’s 36 questions, such as:
- Given the choice of anyone in the world, who would you want as a dinner guest?
- Would you like to be famous? In what way?
- For what in your life do you feel most grateful
- If you could wake up tomorrow having gained one quality or ability, what would it be?
Science supports minimizing small talk and having deeper conversations.
As published in Psychological Science, researchers found that the happiest participants in a study involving more than 20,000 recorded conversations had twice as many genuine and deep talks as the unhappiest participants. This confirms what most people know: Surface-level small talk does not build relationships. The article that is linked to includes 12 suggested questions to avoid small talk; here’s a sample:
- If you could do anything you wanted tonight (anywhere, for any amount of money), what would you do and why?
- If you could know the absolute and total truth to one question, what question would you ask?
- When’s the last time you failed spectacularly at something?
- What do you value more, intelligence, or common sense?
And here is a link to another article that suggests some conversation starters, such as:
- What’s the best present you ever gave someone? Ever received?
- Is there anything you don’t eat?
- What sort of vacations do you like to take?
I like to move beyond small-talk as much as the next guy, but when I look at these questions, I think I’ll stick to talking about baseball and the weather. If we move beyond that, then that’s great.
It would seem a more natural way for a conversation to evolve, and not contrived or forced by using any of the above questions.
But what do I know, I don’t really like going to parties and talking to strangers anyway…
*image from Learn Talk