(36 Questions study at the bottom for you TYLSers)*
To be honest, I hate small talk. I despise it like a New Year’s Resolutioner despises free ice cream cake on January 10th. The first 9 days were bearable, but free ice cream cake?! Blasphemy.
Relationships develop like an onion is peeled. Layer by layer, we slowly get closer to the core. Small talk keeps us at the superficial first level.
Scientists call it social psychology, and that healthy metaphor leads us to why it’s common for us to stick to small talk when we’re with someone.
It’s a necessary evil, allowing us to dip our toes into an interaction with someone without the risk of burning our whole body if their water is boiling. It’s harder to dislike what someone says when the topic of conversation innocently travels from the bipolar nature of last week’s weather to yesterday’s instagram pics of ‘the game’.
Small talk reduces our chances of getting rejected, simultaneously sabotaging our chances to grow, learn, and connect.
Like most things we do, fear is secretly motivates us down own path. Don’t dive deep with someone! We might find that they don’t believe the same things we do. We might disagree! Even worse, they might not like us. Real questions make us vulnerable.
Neh, I say! Down with the small talk. It served its purpose in the first few minutes of an interaction. Any urge we have to keep up the small talk is a lost opportunity. That time could have been spent on a fun inquiry into values, learning someone’s story. We could have discovered our hidden mutual love for needlepoint!
People not named “I” hold the key to a treasure chest of new perspectives, opposing views challenging how we see the world. Everyone carries a few years of life experience with them. If we’re open to searching for it, an interesting treasure chest of connection awaits behind the first few layers of conversation.
Which leads us to the question of the hour:
What do we do about it?
With a few interesting life experiences and an obsession with psychology under my belt, I don’t pretend to have all the answers. However, the following three strategies have opened up the doors of connection for many.
I believe there are 3 prerequisites to forming real connections with anyone, whether they are a potential collaborator, friend, or boss:
1. An even playing field
3. Gradually peeling the onion
First: An even playing field
I believe it is impossible to connect with someone if we don’t come from a position of equality. When we’re below someone, we put on the face of our accomplishments to measure up, strutting around like a rooster, spouting our pedigree to anyone who will listen. Some people suck up, lightly pecking their acquaintance’s booties with kisses. Both of these create a problem: the person ‘below’ seems inauthentic.
Think back to a time you flaunted your accomplishments to try and connect with someone, desperate to be seen ‘on their level’. Did it work? Maybe I’m special, but I don’t ever remember this scenario leading to anything but the empty feeling of inauthenticity.
The opposite is just as dangerous. When we strut around a room at the top run of the social hierarchy, it’s easy to fall into a paternalistic attitude towards others. “We’re better than them and they need our help,” we tell ourselves. Even more dangerous, it’s an easy story for us to rationalize. We’ve tripped into a hole cutting us off from any chances to genuinely connect with people, and the concussion we sustained during the fall prevents us from even realizing the predicament we’re in.
Everyone eats sleeps and poops just like we do. Connection depends on an even playing field.
From this even playing field, the depth of a connection is based on the disclosure of personal vulnerabilities. Think about the people you’ve really connected with. You know them and they know you. You’ve both let down the defensive shell that often follows us around and talked about real sh*t!
But we don’t do that with just anyone. We’re scared they might not like us, so conversations strays away from core beliefs. Our culture has a tendency to promote the image of superhumans as those who are so strong that they don’t show vulnerabilities. Hulk SMASH!
Sorry to break it to you, but vulnerability is where the magic happens. Don’t take my word for it. Social psychological research has proven that personal disclosures are the fuel powering the engine of connection.
But don’t take my word for it, do what you want Mr. Hulk! Who listens to scientists anyway? The world is flat – that’s why that big yellow thing rises on one side and sets on the other. If the world was round, that definitely wouldn’t come up on one side each day.
Sharing vulnerabilities on an even playing field is the glue of good connection.
Third: Gradually peel the onion
This is the fun part.
Social psychologists have also done an absurd amount of research into how we connect with people. Time and time again, we’ve discovered that gradual disclosures of vulnerability produce the secret sauce that makes everything taste nice. So how exactly do we translate scientific mumbo jumbo into something actionable we can test for ourselves?
Simple. Ask the right questions.
Turning Theory into Action
An experiment that started at the State University of New York has touched people around the world. In one hour, complete strangers become good friend. It’s been so effective, in fact, that the first iteration of this experiment unintentionally produced a marriage. You’ve been warned.
I fell in love with this experiment with a fantastic group called StartingBloc during which I discovered the hidden, crazy ways that a quiet Indian girl from Pennsylvania named Ipsa was the same as me. We’ve remained friends to this day.
Over the course of an hour, two strangers proceed through a list of intentionally designed questions, gradually peeling the onion of vulnerability from the very innocent “if you could have dinner with anyone in the world alive or dead, who would it be?” to “what is the most embarrassing moment of your life?”
And it works magic for most everyone. I facilitated a workshop with (read: experimented on) high school students from across North Carolina at a youth leadership conference called TYLC two weeks ago.
I’ll be honest, before we started I was sufficiently worried they wouldn’t quite get it. The 13-17 year olds proved all my preconceived notions wrong. Students were asked to pair up with a peer who they didn’t know and who they though was the most different from them out of everyone in the room. We ended up with a fantastic mix of interracial and intersex pairs along with a few who seemed to have found each other based on a difference in scale (tallies with shorties).
As we progressed through our 10 questions, a crazy phenomenon physically illustrated the power of the above three principles. Two by two, pairs gradually moved from standing 6 feet apart in “stranger danger” poses to sitting down facing each other. Most were practically touching knees.
At the end of our hour together, our high school social scientists erupted in laughter as pairs of strangers-turned-friends shared the most embarrassing moment of their lives – something many hadn’t even shared with their best friends.
An even playing field combined with a healthy teaspoon of vulnerability, gradually sprinkled on an interaction can create friends out of complete strangers.
Act: A Challenge
Call it relationship science or relationship magic, what happens next is up to you.
Introverts and extroverts alike can create relationship magic if they choose to take control over the quality of their conversations. Let small talk serve it’s purpose.
The 36 questions below are a smorgasbord of ideas referenced from the study that started this madness. Think of it as a starting block for you begin experimenting until more creative inquiries come to mind.
As a personal case study, every few weeks a good friend from StartingBloc and I will dive into one of these questions. We’re not even halfway through and I feel like I know her better than most of the hoodlums I grew up with. I’m continually blown away by the hour long conversations that can result from a good question.
I challenge you to go out and experiment yourself with strangers and best friends.
How will you create relationship magic?
Written with love,
36 Questions Exercise
Important note: In the following questions, it often refers to “your partner.” This doesn’t mean your partner in a romantic relationship, nor your partner in your social venture. It means your partner in conversation – i.e., the “stranger” with whom you are exchanging answers to these questions!**
1. Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
2. Would you like to be famous? In what way?
3. Before making a phone call, do you ever rehearse what you’re going to say? Why?
4. What would constitute a perfect day for you?
5. When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?
6. If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you choose?
7. Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?
8. Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common.
9. For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
10. If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
11. Take four minutes and tell your partner your life story in as much detail as possible.
12. If you could wake up tomorrow having gained one quality or ability, what would it be?
13. If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future or anything else, what would you want to know?
14. Is there something that you’ve dreamt of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
15. What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
16. What do you value most in a friendship?
17. What is your most treasured memory?
18. What is your most terrible memory?
19. If you knew that in one year you would die suddenly, would you change anything about the way you are now living? Why?
20. What does friendship mean to you?
21. What roles do love and affection play in your life?
22. Alternate sharing something you consider a positive characteristic of your partner. Share a total of five items.
23. How close and warm is your family? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other people’s?
24. How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?
25. Make three true “we” statements each. For instance, “we are both in this room feeling…”
26. Complete this sentence “I wish I had someone with whom I could share…”
27. If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know.
28. Tell your partner what you like about them: be honest this time, saying things that you might not say to someone you’ve just met.
29. Share with your partner an embarrassing moment in your life.
30. When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?
31. Tell your partner something that you like about them already.
32. What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?
33. If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t you told them yet?
34. Your house, containing everything you own, catches fire. After saving your loved ones and pets, you have time to safely make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be? Why?
35. Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?
36. Share a personal problem and ask your partner’s advice on how he or she might handle it. Also, ask your partner to reflect back to you how you seem to be feeling about the problem you have chosen.
Original research cited from:
Aron, A., Melinat, E., Aron, E. N., Vallone, R., & Bator, R. (1997). The experimental generation of interpersonal closeness: A procedure and some preliminary findings. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23, 363-377.
* This material was adapted from a workshop I gave at TYLC, a youth leadership conference here in Raleigh. I wrote this for the kids who bravely put up with me.
** A big big thank you to Scott Sherman for introducing me to this experiment