Do you remember the last time you tried to strike up a conversation with someone only to come to a dead end when you didn’t seem to have much to say to one another? It might have happened with a colleague at work or a new person you met in a social gathering. If you’re like most people, it could just as easily happen at dinnertime with your spouse or child. This feeling is often frustrating and it can be difficult to figure out what you can do to develop and deepen the conversation. What can you do to jumpstart a conversation to engage someone and build an emotional connection?
Most people start conversations with questions such as “Where are you from?”, “What do you do?” or “What did you do today?” The response you will hear is usually factual: “I live in Brooklyn”, “I’m an accountant” or “I took a test.” While this is a great way to begin a conversation, most people fall into a trap of continuing the conversation by following up with more fact-based questions: “Do you know my cousin from Brooklyn?”, “Where do you work as an accountant?, “What kind of test was it?” It might seem like you are taking an interest in the other person but if you continue along a fact-finding path, it is likely to leave one or both of you bored with the conversation.
The key to changing the quality of your conversations is to discuss FACT+FEELING. After you ask a fact-based question, follow up with a question about a feeling that is related to the fact: “What made you decide to live in Teaneck?”, “What do you like about accounting?”, or “How did you feel when you were taking the test?” Allow time for people to think about and articulate their feelings.
When people express their feelings and opinions, avoid judging what they say or comparing it to how you would think or feel. Instead, listen carefully and summarize for them what you heard them say in your own words. Empathize by sharing how you could understand why they would feel this way. Put yourself in their shoes and empathize with their feelings, even if you do not agree with them. While this approach may be challenging at times, it is worth the effort. People find it very validating when you understand and empathize with their feelings. This transforms your conversations from small talk to deep and meaningful conversation and helps foster an emotional connection.
Empirical research conducted by Dr. John M. Gottman demonstrates how an emotional connection and a sense of trust are developed when we listen to and empathize with someone’s feelings. In his book on how to foster close connections for couples, The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples, and his guide for parents Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child: The Heart of Parenting, Gottman talks about the importance of being attuned to another person in a relationship, whether it be your date, spouse, child or friend. ATTUNE is an acronym that Gottman offers to summarize six key steps to effectively respond to another’s feelings: Awareness, Tolerance, Turning toward, Understanding, Non-defensive listening and Empathy.
Each conversation with another person presents an opportunity for others to share their feelings with us. The more that we demonstrate to them that we can understand their feelings and empathize with them, the more they will be encouraged to continue sharing their feelings with us. You’ll be amazed by how easily your conversations will flow and how you’ll generate and grow your affection for one another.
About the Author
Dr. Chani Maybruch is a relationship educator and coach, and the co-founder of The Relationship Couple together with her husband, Rabbi Shmuel Maybruch (www.TheRelationshipCouple.com). She has been guiding individuals and couples for fourteen years on how to enhance their relationships. She provides personalized, research-based coaching to people who are looking for a life partner or who are dating, engaged, or married – helping people at every stage bring out the best in their relationship.