Starting intelligent conversation | Twenty of Time

Starting intelligent conversation

Cut past the small talk with these tips

Friso van Dijk Friso van Dijk

The best way to have fun at parties isn’t the small talk. It’s having a deeper, more meaningful conversations in smaller rather than larger groups. The problem is that you often meet people you only see every so often. The rest are strangers. So how do you spark some intelligent, meaningful conversation and cut past the small talk? In this article I will share some of the successful methods I have been using to do just that.

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.

A research paper states 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, in their words: “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.”

Socrates illustration

Let’s jump 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 often bordering on rudeness. It’s then that I realised that my conversational skills may need some improvement. With this post I hope to put a few tips out there that worked for me, though I’m not close to being the master myself.

Before getting to business

In my experience, 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). 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.

Socrates conversing illustration

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. I wanted to get it over with right away. This made me seem uninterested towards the people I was talking to. That made going into any more interesting conversation a lot harder than it had to be.

The last thing to account for is making 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. People will pass by or want to join in. Let them I’d say. Small interruptions should be of no concern when the conversation is interesting.

Conversation about the weather is the last refuge of the unimaginative.

— Oscar Wilde

To recap, you want to engage with the right people. That means someone who’s not the life of the party and doesn’t have the time to engage at that moment. You need to start off with some small talk. And third, don’t be bothered by small interruptions. When that’s all taken care of, start steering the conversation to more interesting matters.

Going deep

Now that everything other than the conversation has been dealt with, it’s time to lay the foundations of a good conversation. I listed what the most fundamentals for a good conversation are:

  • Listening. Conversing is a two-way street, otherwise it’d be called a monologue. Listening to someone, understand (or at least try to) what they’re saying, pay attention and show interest. The ability to listen is the main building block in having more meaningful conversations.

    Zeno said it best: “We have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen more than we say.”

  • 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. You can guide your questions with hooks people give you, such as talking about a job in IT means that you could try to enquire on technological topics.

Spawning ideas illustration

  • 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 those topics need more of a build-up.
  • 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 be one of the most rewarding. It can lead to some of your 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, there you have it. This set of techniques are good for any conversation, so make sure to apply them in small talk as well. The best way of steering the conversation is to be attentive. Let the conversation take place, but don’t be afraid to take the lead when it’s going downhill. That avoids those awkward silences. And if it doesn’t work, try again on someone else.