Elevating Connections: Mastering the Art of Meaningful Conversations

Against a backdrop of shallow chit-chat and surface interactions, building the desire for conversation has come to be more essential than ever. In 1970, Rebecca West offered a damning afterthought when she described conversation as ‘intersecting monologues’. Now, the question is: a month or a year from now, how many of those exchanges will you remember with any satisfaction? Based on what we know so far about the purposeful use of speech, there are simple steps we can take to change the trajectory of our conversations. Here’s how the speaker holds the key to better communion from beginning to end.

TUNING IN: The Essence of Listening

Great conversations start with listening. William Hazlitt noted this attribute of the great painter James Northcote. But listening well – asking good questions and genuinely showing interest – is one of the key attributes of great conversation. Questions that encourage conversation, according to Harvard University research, involve follow-ups – especially those that dig a bit deeper. For speakers, the critical no-no is ‘boomerasking’ – asking only to force the conversation back to your own self.


The quality of the attention we each give each other when we’re talking has a huge impact on how we feel when we’re connected together. If someone appears to be listening actively with back-channelling and paraphrasing, their attentiveness is experienced as a sign of interest and trust. Some studies have shown that nonverbal signs of a listener’s attention might not be understood unless they are accompanied by explicit, verbal feedback. If you become skilled at paying and receiving this type of attention, you can significantly improve the quality of your conversations, and the wellbeing and happiness of your conversational partners.


Going beyond the surface level of conversation can help people become fast friends more quickly, as illustrated by Arthur Aron’s ‘fast friends procedure’ in which speakers are prompted to move past chit-chat by making their conversations more intimate and revealing, helping to build a basis for a shared reality. The low and high self-disclosure conditions in Aron’s study capture the difference between ‘business as usual’ and what happens when speakers are able to connect with each other on the level of their personal histories and experiences.


The ‘novelty penalty’ highlights the tension between sharing novel information and finding common ground. Gus Cooney’s experiments show that, on average, people prefer to listen to others talking about familiar topics. This shows that sharing novel experience can be a challenge for speakers. To overcome these obstacles, speakers can salve the saccharine stigma of novel experience by weaving an engaging narrative, and by incorporating extra details to make their story accessible and easy for listeners to follow.


  • Ask and Listen: Prioritize asking thoughtful, open-ended questions and actively listen to the responses.
  • Mutual Disclosure: Encourage a balanced exchange where both speakers feel comfortable sharing personal thoughts.
  • Narrative Crafting: If you have a story to tell that is relatively new or unusual, frame it with familiar touchstones for the listener.
  • Dense Prose: Remember to include the necessary context and information when repurposing text.


Speakers are vital to transforming conversations into encounters. It is the speaker who creates the atmosphere for dialogue, who sets the pace, depth and texture of a conversation and who regulates how much and what is spoken. By asking questions, listening, reflecting and self-revealing, the speaker can create an atmosphere of dialogue in which mutual enrichment and respect are a possibility. Who among us doesn’t want to be a better conversationalist?

When we aspire, as we sometimes do, to better conversations, let’s keep in mind the way in which each speaker carries the seeds of more than just communication. By tweaking our conversation patterns, let’s take each conversation as another opportunity to grow tighter bonds and foster greater community.

Jun 10, 2024
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