Want Better Friendships? Here's How It's Done
Have you ever felt like you had absolutely nothing to talk about?
That somehow, you’ve had every kind of conversation you could have with a person? If you’re like me, you love to skip past small talk and dive into rich conversations. However, it can be tough when it feels like the person on the other side of the conversation may not be up for a heart-to-heart.
Not every conversation you have has to be deep and vulnerable. There are moments where it’s nice to just simply be. There’s something comforting about knowing you can sit in silence with a friend or loved one and know that all is well between you.
But what if you’ve gone weeks—or even months—without engaging in a conversation that went beyond the weather, a well-known TV show, or the score from last night’s game? If you're not willing to go deep, you might realize that your conversations and relationships will not naturally go below the surface.
Interestingly, it turns out that engaging in meaningful conversations is actually good for our health! In a study published in Psychology Today, psychologist Matthias Mehl followed the conversations of 79 college students, capturing 30-second snippets of their conversations every 12.5 minutes for four days. Mehl and his team categorized their conversations in two ways: substantive (the exchange of meaningful information - “Why did you fall in love with him/her?”) or small talk (the exchange of trivial information - “What are you eating there?"). At the end of the study, they found that the happiest participants engaged in twice as many substantive conversations compared to the unhappiest participants. While the happiest participants had about 46% substantive conversations and 10.2% small talk, the unhappiest participants had about 22% substantive conversations and 28.3% small talk.
Mehl and his team later conducted the same study but with 486 people and a diverse pool of participants, including recent divorcees and cancer patients. They also found that the happiest participants were those who had high amounts of substantive conversations.
So, what can you do when you feel like your interactions with others are becoming stale? Although the dynamic of meaningful conversations can be different between romantic relationships, friendships, and relationships with family and/or mentor figures, the basis remains the same.
First, determine the atmosphere of the relationship. When you’re with your loved one, do you get the sense that something holding them back from engaging vulnerably in a relationship? Before moving forward with a vulnerable conversation, try to understand why they might be distant or unwilling to engage. It is possible they do not want to be transparent or exposed because they were hurt in a past situation. If this is the case, you should practice what Alisa Grace likes to call the “3 P’s":
- Pause. Take time to process by yourself before seeking this person out one-on-one.
- Pray. Go through Psalm 139 and ask the Lord to show you what’s in your heart.
- Proceed. When you feel like it’s best, move forward and initiate conversation.
Second, be willing to engage with the other person’s interests. If there’s not an underlying issue of hurt from the past, then maybe your loved one has simply not had enough practice with going deeper than surface-level topics. If this is the case, start asking open-ended questions about their interests and experiences. Don’t ask “How was your day?” Instead, ask “What was something exciting that happened today?” If your friend likes basketball, ask them questions about the game. Be genuinely curious about why your friend likes basketball, and ask questions like “What does basketball do for you?” and “Why do you think it’s one of your favorite hobbies?” These questions will encourage people to dig deep and think about how they’re really feeling.
Now, you may be asking yourself, “Why would I want to engage in meaningful conversations? What’s so bad about small talk?” Okay, I’ll be honest. Small talk is a true gift. How awkward would it be to ask the person in the elevator about their life story in two minutes?
There is a time and a place for small talk— like the elevator. Or in line at the grocery store. But there’s something so beautiful about being honest and vulnerable with the people you love most. When we engage in deeper conversations, we allow ourselves to invite others to love us as we are, while loving them as they are.
Kayla Santos is the marketing and communications intern for the Center for Marriage and Relationships. She is a senior journalism major who is passionate about healthy relationships and hearing people’s stories. When she’s not behind the computer, you can find her playing volleyball, hanging out at the beach, or cozying up with a book at a coffee shop. She also might try to guess your enneagram type if you spend enough time with her.