10 Questions for More Meaningful Conversations This Year

How do you know a scientific conclusion is correct given that so many understandings are updated when new evidence comes in? One quick rule of thumb is to look for multiple studies over time that all come to the same conclusion. Then you can be reasonably sure that a finding will stand the test of time. 

In the realms I write about — wellness, personal productivity and performance, health — a few examples of rock solid findings stick out. Nature and exercise are awesome for your mental health. Short naps boost performance. And, perhaps more surprisingly, too much small talk can bum you out. 

It might be hard to believe after a couple of years when many of us have been locked at home yearning for everyday chitchat with strangers, but study after study shows that the more meaningful conversations you have, the happier you’re likely to be. We fear the awkwardness and intimacy of deep conversation but if we get over these hurdles, we get real joy out of connecting with other human beings. 

So how do you get over your nerves and start talking about stuff that actually matters? The latest scientist to look into the benefits of meaningful conversation has a few suggestions. 

Another study confirms it: you should aim for deeper conversations 

As Quartz’s Lila MacLellan recently reported, the University of Chicago’s Nicolas Epley is the latest scientist to confirm that less small talk makes us happier. You may have heard of Epley before. He’s the author of a previous study showing that chatting to strangers makes people happier than they expect, which was a bit of a media sensation. His latest research builds on that finding. If mindless chit chat boosts our mood, would deeper conversations make us even happier, Epley wondered? 

To find out, he and his team designed a series of 12 experiments with a total of more than 1,800 participants. What did they discover? 

“People greatly overestimate how awkward it will be to hold a ‘deep’ conversation with someone they don’t know well, and routinely underestimate how much other people care about us and what’s on our minds, Epley and his co-authors discovered. Surveys given before and after orchestrated conversations also showed that most study subjects didn’t expect to feel bonded to a randomly assigned conversation partner once their interaction ended, but they did, particularly when their conversation was weightier than typical small talk,” explains MacLellan. 

Here’s how

As I mentioned earlier, that’s not too surprising. Earlier studies suggested less small talk will make you happier. Perhaps more useful for those already convinced of this basic premise are the details of Epley’s study design. The paper, which was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, details exactly what prompts Epley and his collaborators used to get people talking about more than just sports and the weather. 

Handily, the list works as well outside the science lab as within it. Not every question is appropriate for every situation (they are arranged in order of increasing intimacy below), but together they offer plenty of ideas that people can use to spur deeper conversations: 

  1. What would constitute a “perfect” day for you?

  2. Where is somewhere you’ve visited that you felt really had an impact on who you are today?

  3. If you were going to become a close friend with the other participant, please share what would be important for him or her to know.

  4. If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future, or anything else, what would you want to know?

  5. For what in your life do you feel most grateful?

  6. Is there something you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?

  7. What is one of the more embarrassing moments in your life?

  8. What is one of your most meaningful memories? Why is it meaningful for you?

  9. Can you describe a time you cried in front of another person?

  10. If you could undo one mistake you have made in your life, what would it be and why would you undo it?

So if you’re still searching for a New Year’s resolution or just looking for a way to break out of your pandemic doldrums, why not vow to be a little braver in conversation this year? Science suggests that more intimate chats will bring you less awkwardness than you fear and more joy than you expect. 

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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