For me, the best way to get a lot of fun at parties isn’t the small talk, it’s having a deeper, more meaningful conversations, often in smaller groups rather than larger ones. The problem is that, on parties, you often meet people you only see every so often or who are complete strangers. So how do you spark some intelligent conversation and cut past the small talk? In this post I will share some of the methods I have been using for a while now, and with success.
I’m actually backed up by research on this as, during the process of writing this article, I found several sources that cite research that states that more meaningful conversation is actually a way to increase your happiness. With my last post on critical thinking, I couldn’t get away with just accepting and repeating that, so I set out to read the research paper, which turned out to be only two pages long (you can find it here).
They state that people who have more deeper conversations are happier with their lives and that happy people have more social interaction. They do note that there is ambiguity in their findings, because they’re unable to tell whether social people are happier or happy people attract others. Or, as they say it in the research itself: “Remarking on Socrates’ dictum that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” Dennett (1984) wrote, “The overly examined life is nothing to write home about either” (p. 87). Although we hesitate to enter such delicate philosophical disputes, our findings suggest that people find their lives more worth living when examined―at least when examined together.”
So let’s get back to conversation. My early methods were nothing to write home about. I used to be very upfront, jump from small talk into controversial topics and sometimes even managed to be rude and piss people off. That’s when I realised that the art of conversation was something that needs mastering and with this post I hope to put a few tips out there that worked for me, though I’m not even close to being the master myself.
Before getting to business
In my experience I find that there are three basic things that need to be accounted for to have a good conversation. The most important part is your conversational partner (or partners, no need to limit that to just one person). It should be an obvious notion, but nonetheless worth mentioning, that you usually shouldn’t start a deep conversation with the host or someone who is the life of a party. There may be exceptions to this rule, but in my experience those people are too busy talking to everyone and do not have the time to stay and talk for a while. So choose your audience wisely.
The second point is the realisation that some small talk is unavoidable. Although nowadays I even start to appreciate some small talk every now and then, it used to be that I couldn’t stand it and wanted it to get over with right away. This made me seem uninterested and disrespectful towards the people I was talking to, so that made going into any more interesting conversation a lot tougher than it had to be.
The last thing to account for is to make sure you’re out of the busiest area of the party, somewhere where you can have a peaceful and quiet conversation without getting interrupted every other second. Of course some interruptions are unavoidable and people will pass by or want to join in (and why not let them?), but that should be of no concern when the conversation is interesting.
So after a bit of small talk and getting to know each other or, in case of already knowing your conversational partner(s), catching up, you can feel like it’s time to move the conversation towards a more interesting nature. There are two methods of steering the conversation: the first is to ask more open-ended questions and let others guide the conversation, slightly steered by your questions. The second way is to steer the conversation towards a topic you feel like talking about.
Now that everything other than the conversation has been dealt with, it’s time to lay the foundations of a good conversation. I put together a list of what, in my eyes, are the most important points for a good conversation and moving away from small talk:
- Listening. Conversing is a two-way street, because else it’d be called a monologue. Listening to someone talk, understanding (or at least trying to understand) what they’re saying, paying attention and showing interest. The ability to listen is the main building block in having more meaningful conversations.
- Asking the right questions. Try to think of asking questions that are open-ended, which invite your conversation partner to share a story or require a bit of thought before an answer. People love sharing their own stories, so allow them to tell these to you.
- Give surprising answers. In small talk you will face the standard questions of “How are you?” and “What do you do for a living?” Try to answer these with a twist, for example by switching “I’m good.” with “I’m really fascinated by the way trees grow.” This sparks interest and can be a short-cut to the meatier parts.
- Just bring something up. Another straightforward way is to start talking about a topic that interests you whenever the niceties have been said. This can instantly lead to a more interesting conversation, just make sure it’s nothing too controversial or confronting, as I found out that doesn’t work in your favour.
- Don’t be afraid to open up. Really opening up and talking about the more fragile parts of the human soul is one of the hardest things to do, but it can also be one of the most rewarding things as well. It can lead to some of the best conversations, with both people having a look into the deeper parts of the other’s mind. Just make sure you’re comfortable with what you’re sharing, although getting a bit out of your comfort zone can be a good thing from time to time.
So that’s it. I’ve laid out my techniques of getting past the small talk into deeper, more meaningful conversations. Now I would also like to hear about your thoughts and methods: do you want more meaningful conversations? If so, how do you plan to achieve it? Just leave a comment below and I promise to read and react!