“Hey! How are you? It’s been such a long time since we last spoke. What have you been up to?” Many conversations start like this, but once that first sentence is out of your mouth, the rest often doesn’t flow as easily. It doesn’t matter if you’re speaking with a stranger or a long-lost friend, the conversation can quickly turn awkward, annoying, boring, embarrassing… or all those things at once.
Although communication is at the core of the human experience, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and shy away from it, dismissing it as too hard, says Adam Mastroianni, a Columbia Business School researcher who studies how people perceive each other. But having good conversations really isn’t that complicated. There are just a couple of things you’ll want to keep in mind.
Don’t skip the small talk
A lot of people boast about their hate for small talk, but it exists for a reason, Mastroianni says. “You need to have some kind of baseline of a relationship with someone before you can get to the next step,” he explains. Conversations, in fact, are not just about information extraction—they also help us show that we care and are listening and attending to each other, even if we’re just talking about how our day went.
“Other primates do this by picking bugs out of their [community members’] hair. We do it using our words,” says Mastroianni. “Someone who doesn’t get that, to me, feels a little suspect. It’s like they want something instrumental out of this conversation, rather than doing it for the sake of drawing closer with someone.” So don’t worry that questions like, “How was your day?” and “How was your meal?” are too basic. Small talk can help ease into more meaningful conversations, gradually increasing reciprocal intimacy.
Please, please, put your phone away
Constantly checking your phone while talking with somebody is rude, vexing, and makes you a worse conversation partner no matter how well you think you can multitask. You don’t have to take our word for it, either: research published by the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in 2018 showed that people who used their phones during a conversation felt more distracted and experienced less overall enjoyment.
Even if you think you’re exceptionally skilled at using your phone while chatting, you’re probably not. Another study published in the same journal four years later showed that people fail to recognize how negatively their phone use is affecting a social interaction, even though they can easily see how others’ phone use is affecting it. That’s because we all think we’re using our phones for a good reason, while others aren’t. So, seriously, keep your phone out of sight, and both you and the person you’re talking with will enjoy the conversation more.
Go with the flow and keep an open mind
Once you’re present and immersed in the conversation you’re having, you should be able to go with the flow. Imagine walking into a room full of mimes and pretending to shoot one of them with a bow and arrow, Mastroianni says. The target will go along with it, agreeing to the reality you’re creating and cooperating with you. “I think that is what a lot of people miss in a conversation,” he says. “Be willing to humor other people and see where it goes.”
Stop worrying about how you’re being perceived—they like you more than you think
People consistently underestimate how much other people like them, a phenomenon social psychologists have dubbed “the liking gap.” In short, this is the difference between how much you think someone likes you and how much they actually like you, and it’s a gap that can last months. You’ve been living with it most of your life, too: A study published by Psychological Science in 2021 found that the liking gap tends to appear when we are 5 years old—the age we start worrying about how we’re socially perceived. Similar research shows that we also underestimate how much others think about us after a conversation.
These findings aside, focusing on being liked generally isn’t a helpful way to build genuine relationships. “Many people spend a lot of time evaluating themselves or thinking about what other people will think of them. In general, this interferes with connecting with others,” says Gail Heyman, a University of California, San Diego, professor who specializes in social cognition.
Plus, don’t take it personally if a conversation doesn’t go as well as you thought it would—most of the time people are projecting. Maybe they’re having a rough day or feeling uneasy about the topic, and that’s why they’re not matching your energy. Keep that in mind and respond accordingly, but empathetically. Many times, what looks like a negative response stems from the person being preoccupied, or from another reason that has little, if anything, to do with you, Heyman says. Try to understand where they’re coming from, instead of raising your defenses.
Ask questions, preferably open-ended ones
When you ask questions, especially follow-up ones, your conversation partner is more likely to have a positive impression of you, according to Harvard University research published in 2017. That’s because people who asked more questions were perceived as better at listening, understanding, validating, and caring, the study found. One part of the investigation also showed that speed-daters who asked more follow-up questions were more likely to get asked on a second date.
In practice, you want to ask a good question that’s fairly easy to answer, says Mastroianni. “An example of a bad question is, ‘Do you have any siblings?’ Because the answer is yes or no, and it doesn’t allow the person to actually elaborate,” he explains. “A better question is, ‘How do you feel about’ something, or ‘What do you think about’ something.”
Give your partner a path through the conversation
Just because you’ll be listening and asking insightful questions doesn’t mean you’ll never have to talk yourself. In fact, many people assume that talking a lot during a conversation is bad when it’s actually not. Similar to the liking gap, people tend to underestimate how much other people enjoy hearing from them, incorrectly believing they will be more likable if they speak less than half the time in a conversation. That assumption is wrong.
What really matters, Mastroianni says, is how you’re talking about yourself and whether what you’re saying is facilitating a conversation where somebody can say something else next. “I think good conversations have a lot of doorknobs,” he says. A doorknob is, basically, a conversational element that allows your speaking partner to grab onto a topic and keep the discussion moving. Mastroianni refers to them this way because grasping a real-world doorknob helps you move into another space. “These are things that you can latch onto, that we can both take from each other and give to each other,” says Mastroianni. Balancing the give and take is important because if all you do is talk about yourself, you’ll come across as vain. On the other hand, if all you do is ask questions, you’ll end up resentful, he explains.
Venture out deeper when you’re ready
With these tips in your toolbox, suss out the conversation’s flow and venture deeper when you’re ready. Generally, having deep conversations and sharing intimate moments are associated with higher overall wellbeing, but again—you’ll have to build upon a foundation of small talk.
The liking gap is common in these more intense conversations too, so don’t get discouraged. A study published in 2022 by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology analyzed 1,800 people across 12 different experiments and found that although people enjoy deep conversations, even with strangers, they often underestimate how much others are interested in hearing about their lives.
“I am interested in conversations in which people gain new insights about each other, themselves, or about the world—the kind of conversations college students often have when they are living in the dorms and staying up later than they should,” says Heyman, offering an example of what she’d consider a deep conversation. “After college, I noticed that the people around me rarely had those kinds of conversations, and I missed that.”
Don’t stress if the conversation is ending faster, or running longer, than you want it to
Let’s admit it: It’s hard to strike a balance. People often—you guessed it—underestimate how pleasant the continuation of conversation is going to be. More specifically, people enjoy the first couple of minutes of a conversation, then start to think the rest won’t be as good—but they’re wrong, according to research published by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2022.
Yet Mastroianni notes that conversations barely ever end when we want them to, a fact reinforced by a study he co-authored and published in PNAS. On average, conversations ended at a time that differed from the time participants wanted them to end by about 50 percent of the length of the conversation, says Mastroianni. That’s a big mismatch. Yes, a majority of people wanted to end sooner, but a chunk of people wanted the conversation to continue. And even when both study participants wanted to continue, they didn’t want to keep talking for the same amount of time, says Mastroianni.
These differences are caused by one underlying theme: people don’t often want the same things out of an interaction, Mastroianni says. But remarkably, this lack of coordination doesn’t stop us from enjoying the chat.
Sure, people who say a conversation went on longer than they wanted to do enjoy it a little less, but not that much less, Mastroianni says. It’s not like they thought the conversation was outright terrible.
Ultimately, tailor your approach
Although we do have a fairly solid understanding of what works in a conversation, you probably won’t be able to apply all these tips every time you talk with someone—every discussion is different.
So moving forward, try not to focus too much on whether you can be a better conversationalist overall, and think more about what you can bring to each conversation. Truly listen and pay attention to the person you’re talking with.
“It’s not just like ‘Are you a good conversationalist?’” Mastroianni says. “But ‘Are you a good conversationalist with this person, right now, in this conversation that you’re having?’”