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Conversations are powerful. Here are ways to embrace the awkward and deepen relationships

Psychologists are studying how high-quality discussions can improve our mood, deepen our relationships, and resolve conflicts

By Zara Abrams for The APA



Conversations hold immense power. They help us form new connections and deepen existing ones. They can change minds, align brains, save lives—even prevent disaster on a global scale.


Yet this powerful tool for connecting with others is also one of the hardest to study. In every conversation, word choice, word order, timing, structure, and nonverbal cues can all vary in infinite ways, so what makes these interactions “click” has long remained a mystery.

“Conversation is this ancient technology for aligning our brains so that we can be on the same page,” said Thalia Wheatley, PhD, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth College who studies how we connect during conversations. “It’s the most ubiquitous social behavior that we do, yet we don’t really know much about it.”

That’s all starting to change, with artificial intelligence and advanced neuroimaging unlocking new insights about how we interact. Already, psychological research is offering valuable tips that can help deepen our relationships, resolve political conflicts, and even help people at risk for suicide. On a smaller scale, high-quality conversations can give us a welcome boost in our day-to-day lives. [Related: The science of why friendships keep us healthy]

“Our well-being is determined largely by the quality of our social relationships, which are shaped by our conversations. Going a little deeper can help people create connections that leave them feeling happier,” said Michael Kardas, PhD, an assistant professor of management at Oklahoma State University’s Spears School of Business who studies deep conversations.

Going Deeper People consistently avoid deep conversations—especially with strangers—partly because we worry that the conversations will feel awkward or that we’ll run out of things to say. But research shows that deep conversations feel less awkward and lead to more connectedness and happiness than people predict (Kardas, M., et al., Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 122, No. 3, 2022).

“Knowing that deep conversations tend to be more enjoyable than people expect could lower the barrier to starting one,” said Juliana Schroder, PhD, an associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business who studies social interaction.

Another way to connect during conversations is by asking questions—but not just any question. Follow-up questions, in particular, demonstrate that you’re paying attention and want to learn more (Huang, K., et al., Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 113, No. 3, 2017).

“Questions make you more likeable, but the key is showing that you’re listening,” said psychologist Julia Minson, PhD, an associate professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. “Asking questions is less effective if they have nothing to do with what your conversation partner just said.”

Hearing Others Some of the hardest conversations can also be some of the most important, including talking with people who have different points of view.

“Disagreement is inevitable, and our success or failure in relationships is often based on whether we can navigate that disagreement successfully, and build trust in spite of it,” said Michael Yeomans, PhD, an assistant professor of strategy and organizational behavior at Imperial College London.

Based on their research of political opponents, he and Minson developed a set of tools for “conversational receptiveness” known as HEAR that can show our willingness to engage with opposing points of view during a discussion (Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Vol. 160, 2020). HEAR challenges us to hedge our claims (“Some people believe…”), emphasize agreement (“I think we both want…”), acknowledge other perspectives (“You just said…”), and reframe requests in the positive (“I really appreciate it when…”).

Researchers are also building on this and other existing knowledge about conversations with a new and exciting approach, known as hyperscanning, that involves scanning two or more brains simultaneously as they interact. The technique allows psychologists to explore uncharted territory around conflict, persuasion, friendship, and more.

“Scanning two brains during a conversation blows open our ability to look at interpersonal dynamics,” said Diana Tamir, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Princeton University.

Tamir has found that strangers’ mental states become more similar over the course of the conversation—they essentially spend their time finding common ground, she said. But the mental states of friends do something totally different. They start off close together, then spend the conversation diverging. That pattern actually leads to conversations that are even stronger than the ones strangers have when they diverge and come back together, Tamir said (PsyArXiv Preprints, 2023).

“Our main takeaway is that during a conversation, it’s important to know where the other person is, but it’s also important to take them into a new direction—to say something that’s going to surprise and interest them,” Tamir said.



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