Small Talk to Real Talk

Ever find that life gets so hectic that Facebook or Twitter becomes your go-to source of connecting with friends? While connecting face-to-face with people you care about is highly correlated with well-being, connecting via social media doesn’t appear to hold the same benefit. In fact, one study[1] found that participants who engaged the most in social media use reported the highest levels of social isolation. This doesn’t necessarily mean that social media causes social isolation; it could mean that users who felt isolated were reaching out more on social media as a substitute. Regardless, it underscores the importance of not relying solely on social media for social connections.

The good news is that the holidays are almost here. That means kids are home from school, maybe more free time with your partner and social events with friends and co-workers: a perfect opportunity to connect more deeply in real life with the people you care about.

But how do you go from making small talk to having real talk  with the people in your life? Here are four strategies for engaging more deeply with others.

 Signal safety and openness.

It may seem obvious, but relationships deepen and flourish in an environment of safety and openness. Just think back to your last office party or blind date. The environment was probably a little awkward or formal, and you probably made some small talk and went home.

So, what could you do in that same environment that might change the outcome? You may have heard that communication is only 7 percent verbal and 93 percent non-verbal. That statistic is up for debate, but the underlying truth it points to is well-recognized: body language and tone of voice can have a huge impact on what we are trying to communicate to others.

You can use specific non-verbal communication strategies to help create feelings of safety in others, upping the odds that you’ll get past the small talk and have more meaningful interaction. Try these at your next office party, when talking to your teenagers or while having dinner with your partner and see how the conversation turns to more substantial topics:

  • Slow down when you exhale. Popular belief is that deeper breaths  in calm us down, but it’s actually stretching our exhalations that has this effect. Try taking a normal breath in, then slowing down and breathing out more completely. Because people tend to unconsciously “co-regulate” (meaning they tend to mirror one another’s states), by slowing your own breathing, you can calm your own nervous system and help others with you to do the same.
  • Relax and open your posture. Being really and truly heard by another person is a powerful experience and can make you feel closer to and more trusting of them. Give the signal to the person you’re speaking with that you’re really present. If you’re sitting in a chair, lean forward slightly toward the person you’re talking to, make sure your feet are placed comfortably on the floor and relax your arms at your sides or on your lap. This posture, along with other cues like tilting your head slightly when listening, signal attentiveness and openness to what the other person is saying.


Let go of the agenda.

The holidays are often packed with activities, but letting go of the agenda and spending time following the lead of those you love — especially your kids, if you have them — can be a powerful, bonding experience. Give your kids a budget and a time frame and let them plan your day together. Ask your spouse to show you why they love motorcycle riding so much. Ask your friend to pick the movie you watch together.

This can even work with infants and small children. A therapeutic technique called “Wait. Watch. Wonder.” teaches parents how to let their infant or toddler lead a play session to help draw them closer with one another.

Be open during the experience and try to see it through their eyes. Be game for anything. Ask questions. Let go.


Be curious.

Have you ever had a conversation where the other person didn’t seem all that interested in what you had to say? How did that feel? Most people shut down when their conversation partner just doesn’t seem that into them.

Expressing genuine interest in others is a great way to open up conversation and connect more deeply. But how do you do that when you’ve known someone for years? How can you be genuinely curious about someone you know really well, like your spouse or partner? Try taking some of the together time during the holidays to ask questions that don’t come up in day-to-day conversations.


Ask for a favor.

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Benjamin Franklin quoted an old maxim in his autobiography: “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.”

It seems counter-intuitive, but asking someone you care about to do you a favor (as long as it isn’t too burdensome or too often) can actually make the person feel more connected to you. It’s sometimes called the “Ben Franklin Effect.” People like to feel useful and needed. By asking for help when you need it from someone you care about, you give them the opportunity to be there for you and feel good about themselves, connecting the two of you in a new way.

So during the busy holidays, don’t hesitate to reach out and ask your loved ones for a hand.


Take a chance.

So, how can you deepen your relationships during this holiday season?

Someone once said, “to love is to give hostages to fate” and in a sense, that is true. To really deepen your connection to others, you must be willing to be vulnerable and authentically yourself. How can others truly love you if they do not truly know you?

So take a deep breath and create those safe and open environments that you need as well. Let go of your agenda and the control of the relationship. Renew your curiosity about your loved ones. Go ahead and rely on the people you care about. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. And lastly, share who you are without reservation, trusting that a deeper, more meaningful relationship will be the result.

[1] Social Media Use and Perceived Social Isolation Among Young Adults in the U.S., Primack, Brian A. et al., American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Volume 53, Issue 1, 1 – 8.

For related content: Overcoming Party Paralysis: A Guide to the Holidays from Someone with Social Anxiety