The art of good conversation

Striking up a conversation with someone you don’t know can be a minefield, but knowing the difference between givers and takers and how to provide someone else with the opportunity to talk can help, an experimental psychologist says.

Adam Mastroianni is an experimental psychologist based in Washington in the United States, and the author of the science newsletter Experimental History.

Mastroianni told Nights that people yearned to connect with others but it was also what they feared.

“I think it was only during the pandemic that I realised how much I like talking to people and yet also it’s quite stressful and I think a lot of people feel this way.”

A number of studies have shown that people were pretty pessimistic about how a conversation with a stranger would go, he said.

“They think ‘oh they probably don’t want to talk to me’.

“And even after the conversation if you survey them, this is some of the research I’ve been a part of, if you ask them after a conversation with the new person ‘how much do you like the other person?’ They generally say ‘oh I like them quite a lot’ and how much did they like you? ‘Oh less than that'”.

Overall it made no sense for everyone to like talking to people more than people liked talking to them, he said.

Talking to strangers was really “a zone of anxiety for people, even though it is also one of their most basic needs”, he said.

It may be that fixating on what you did wrong in a conversation could help you to improve your conversational skills in the future, he said.

Mastroianni said people were especially pessimistic about talking to new people.

“It feels like there’s this scary mass of people out there and you don’t want to meet anyone in it, and then when you do they tend to be fine and normal and the lesson that you learn isn’t that ‘oh you know new people I meet tend to be fine and normal’ – it’s that this person was an exception, but the next person is going to be a scary stranger.”

From an evolutionary standpoint this might be understandable given that we may not have interacted with that many people, but now people are surrounded by strangers every day and routinely meet new people, he said.

“So it’s understandably that fills us with a little bit of trepidation.”

The conversational giver vs the conversational taker

The terms ‘conversational giver’ and ‘conversational taker’ came from improv comedy, he said.

The idea of someone being in the spotlight and then stepping aside to allow someone else into the spotlight was give and take, he said.

But that idea did not work so well in improv, particularly when trying to do something difficult like improvise a song, he said.

“I’m in the spotlight making up lyrics and melody off the top of my head, I can’t go that long, right it’s really hard to improvise a song. So rather than I step out of the spotlight when I’m done and hope that someone steps in, the most effective way of doing this is that other people are ready to step in for me.

“So as soon as I start to falter, someone else is in the spotlight picking up the song where I left off and we call that take and take rather than give and take.”

This mirrors two different approaches to conversation, he said.

A conversational giver believed conversation unfolded as a series of invitations, they would speak and then invite the other person to speak, he said.

“I might say something and then ask you a question. ‘Here’s how my day was, how was your day?’.”

On the other hand the “taker school of conversation” was “I say my thing and then you say your thing”, he said.

That meant a person would just jump in when they were ready to talk, he said.

“So we take and take, rather than give and take.”

Give and take, take and take – both can be done well or badly

Mastroianni said both these conversational techniques could be done well or badly.

For example, questions did not always provide the other person with an opportunity to do anything, he said.

“Questions like ‘so well how many cousins do you have?’

“It’s a question, it’s theoretically generous but it actually doesn’t give the other person the opportunity to do anything.”

On the taking side, a person might decide to bore someone with an excruciatingly detailed description of what happened in a TV show that they had watched, he said.

“But some taking is generous because it gives the other person an opportunity to jump in.”

If the two people had watched a film together and one gave an opinion, the other could interrupt to add their views, he said.

“So there are people who are mainly conversational takers and don’t use a lot of questions marks, and yet they’re entertaining and fun to talk to because they create something you can participate in.

“I don’t think that one of these is inherently better than the other, that both can be done well or poorly.”

Working out who is going to speak next becomes more difficult when there are more than two people, he said.

“It’s a little bit like an intersection with two roads that meet versus an intersection with ten roads that meet.”

In larger conversations someone often emerges as a moderator to determine who goes next, or very large conversations can break off into smaller groups of two or three, he said.

Conversational door knobs

An extraverted person might want to connect with a person without knowing how to do it, he said.

“So you might get really excited and tell this person everything on your mind not realising that you haven’t given them anything to grab on to.

“I call these conversational door knobs, psychologists call them affordances, like little bits of the environment that allow you to interact with it.”

Things like a door knob, the rungs on a ladder, the stairs in a house or the handles on a bike allow you to manipulate something in their environment and people also create them in their conversations, he said.

A good question acts like a door knob to allow someone to open the door to the next stage of the conversation, where as a question that fails to do that is like a door without a knob, he said.

“You think that you’ve given someone a way in but you know they’re scrabbling their fingers around the side of the door trying to figure out how to open it and they remain on the outside.”

Mastroianni said people could brainstorm conversation topics ahead of time as a way of making people feel less anxious about conversations.

People could also try to create opportunities or affordances that allowed the other person to speak, he said.

But getting to know someone takes time and people who want to skip small talk may be regarded as suspect, he said.

“Trust inherently has to be built up over time, like I’m going to trust you more when you give me more reason to trust you.

“Someone who wants to speed past the part where we get to know each other is a little bit suspect, it’s like ‘what is it about you that makes you want to skip the part where you reveal to me that you’re someone that I would like to talk to.”

According to the news on Radio New Zealand

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