The Science of Having a Great Conversation

If you’ve ever spoken to someone and later felt that you would have better spent your time talking to a brick wall, you’ll surely identify with the observations of Rebecca West. “There is no such thing as conversation,” the novelist and literary critic wrote in her collection of stories, The Harsh Voice. “It is an illusion. There are intersecting monologues, that is all.”

If someone feels that their conversations have left no impression on those around them, then that is the definition of existential isolation. You’ve probably experienced this on a bad date, at an awful dinner party, or during an interminable family gathering.

Psychological research has identified many habits and biases that impose barriers between ourselves and others—and if we wish to have greater connection with the people around us, we must learn how to overcome them. The good news is that corrections are very easy to put into practice. Tiny tweaks to our conversational style can bring enormous benefits.

Let’s begin with the sins of inattention. “The art of conversation is the art of hearing as well as of being heard,” declared the early 19th-century essayist William Hazlitt in his On the Conversation of Authors, published in 1820. “Some of the best talkers are, on this account, the worst company.”

Hazlitt noted that many of his literary acquaintances—who included Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Stendhal, and William Wordsworth—were so keen to show off their wit and intelligence that they lacked the basic civility of listening to others. He instead recommended that we imitate the painter James Northcote, who, he claimed, was the best listener and—as a result—the best converser that he knew. “I never ate or drank with Mr Northcote; but I have lived on his conversation with undiminished relish ever since I can remember,” Hazlitt wrote. Who wouldn’t want to leave their acquaintances feeling this way?

The simplest way of achieving this is to ask more questions, yet surprisingly few people have cultivated this habit effectively. While studying for a PhD in organizational behavior at Harvard University, Karen Huang invited more than 130 participants into her laboratory and asked them to converse in pairs for a quarter of an hour through an online instant messenger. She found that, even in these 15 minutes, people’s rates of question-asking varied widely, from around four or fewer at the low end to nine or more at the high end.

Asking more questions can make a big difference to someone’s likeability. In a separate experiment, Huang’s team analyzed recordings of people’s conversations during a speed-dating event. Some people consistently asked more questions than others, and this significantly predicted their chance of securing a second date.

It’s easy to understand why questions are so charming: They demonstrate your wish to build mutual understanding and give you the chance to validate each other’s experiences. But even if we do pose lots of questions, we may not be asking the right kind. In her analyses, Huang considered six different categories of questions. You can see the examples below:

1. Introductory
Hey, how’s it going?

2. Follow-up
I’m planning a trip to Canada.
Oh, cool. Have you ever been there before?

3. Full switch
I am working at a dry cleaner’s.
What do you like doing for fun?

4. Partial switch
I’m not super outdoorsy, but not opposed to a hike or something once in a while.
Have you been to the beach much in Boston?