Bored with small talk? Here's how to start a meaningful conversation

Ditching the small talk in favor of more thoughtful, emotionally charged conversation could not only spark more meaningful relationships and make you more memorable—but also advance your career, Sue Shellenbarger writes for the Wall Street Journal.

Making the switch

After she grew restless and bored with run-of-the-mill small talk, Vanessa Van Edwards, a corporate trainer and author of a new social skills book, decided to ditch her typical networking questions—"So what do you do? Where are you from? Do you live around here?"

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Instead, she began offering more probing lines of questioning, such as "Have you been working on anything exciting recently?" or, "What personal passion projects are you working on?"

The result? She began establishing contacts who were more likely to follow up with her. She added that conversation openers that spark pleasure—such as, "What was the highlight of your day?"—tend to spur enjoyable, memorable encounters.

Another tactic, suggested by Dianna Booher, a communications consultant and author, is to inject a meaningful twist to a commonplace topic. For instance, if you encounter someone in a traditionally stressful job, such as a lawyer or accountant, Booher suggested asking something such as, "Can someone in a stressful job like yours ever really get away totally and shut down?"

The science behind the strategy

These strategies are backed by research. Shellenbarger cites studies showing that people are more likely to remember interactions that are emotionally charged. As Lynne Waymon, CEO of Contacts Count, put it, "I'm demanding more of you when I ask thought-provoking questions... The connections you make are going to be much more dramatic and long-lasting."

An added benefit, Shellenbarger writes, is that emotional conversations might actually be easier for introverted individuals who have difficulty with small talk. Pamela  Bradley, a human resources manager for an accounting and consulting firm—and self-described introvert—said she used to become anxious at networking events when she had to engage with people she didn't know. However, she found that swapping out traditional small talk for deeper questions enabled her to focus on the other person and quelled her anxiety.

These meaningful interactions do more than benefit your career, Shellenbarger writes—they can also make you happier. She cites research by Matthias Mehl, a psychology professor at the University of Arizona, who found that people who have deeper conversations with others report a greater sense of well-being than those who exchange only small talk (Shellenbarger, Wall Street Journal, 5/23).

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