This is how to talk to anyone: three surprising science-backed tips

What does it take to have a great conversation?

It might’ve been a while since your last truly wonderful conversation — the pandemic definitely made it harder.

Many of us are feeling rusty after months of working from home. Research shows lots of people are increasingly disconnected and socially isolated.

At the same time, we know that relationships are vital to happiness and networking is the key to getting jobs and building a fulfilling career.

So what is the best way to have a fantastic conversation? How can we connect with people and get them to trust us?

After struggling through some conversation-rustiness myself, I dove into the work of two experts in this area: Dr. Robert Cialdini and Vanessa van Edwards.

Based on their insights on the keys to influence and the science of people, you’ll learn:

  • What makes people popular
  • The optimal ratio of listening to talking
  • The secret to asking amazing questions
  • The trifecta of non-verbal communication.

Let’s start with the simple mindset shift that will transform the way people interact with you.

1. How to get anyone to like you

Joe Rogan is one of the best conversationalists in the world right now.

You may not agree, but Spotify is paying him over $100m to run 3+ hour podcasts with people like Elon Musk, Bernie Sanders and Edward Snowden.

In almost every interview, Rogan gets the conversation moving by kicking two quick goals.

Find similarities and give compliments

According to Dr. Robert Cialdini, author of two books on influence, this is one of the quickest ways to get people to like you:

  • Compliments: We love compliments so much, we’ll pay for them. In fact, Cialdini says, ‘hairstylists increased their tips by 37% simply by saying, ‘Any hairstyle would look good on you.’’
  • Similarities: “We like those who are like us. It’s a tendency that’s part of the human experience almost from the start: infants smile more at adults whose facial expressions match their own.”

Rogan will often kick off a podcast interview with a compliment along the lines of ‘I’m really excited to speak with you today,’ or ‘I’m so glad you could make it down [to the studio], I’ve been pumped about this for a long time.’

Then, he’ll use the first two topics of the conversation to find common ground. Often, he starts with mutual connection or a shared interest in MMA or hunting. All of a sudden, the chat is chirpy and the participants chummy.

Paying someone a compliment and finding common ground is a great way to start a kickass conversation.

Don’t be a suck up

Now, you might be thinking that these techniques work for Rogan because of the setting (a podcast interview). But you don’t want to be showing someone with half-true praise just so they like you.

Well here’s the thing. It’s not actually about trying to get someone to like you.

It’s about showing people how much you like them.

Expressing genuine interest in someone else is one of the most powerful connection tools we have, according to science (which Vanessa van Edwards cites in her book ‘Captivate’):

Stanford researcher Van Sloan studied the social skills of 2,437 high school students across counties in Northern California. He found that the most likable students liked the most other people. Popular students showed their “liking” for others through higher levels of friendliness and smiling. This made them feel liked, which made them like that student even more.

“We are more inclined to enjoy being with people who visibly enjoy being with us.”

The Takeaway

Science says the key to being more likable is simply this: like people more.

When you are with someone you enjoy, you will radiate good vibes, which will set the scene for great conversations. It’ll also make your compliments more genuine, and help you identify common ground — both key factors in rapport-building.

However, you obviously can’t sit/stand there with puppy eyes the whole time. The next level of great conversation is all about asking great questions.

2. How to ask stunningly good questions

20 years ago, a man and a woman sat down in a psychologists’ laboratory to ask each other questions. Six months later, they got married.

Here’s how it happened and what we can learn about asking great questions.

Do the question dance

Psychologists Arthur and Elain Aaron set up the study to test the power of the ‘reciprocity’ effect on college students. They had the participants enter the lab through separate doors and sit down face to face.

The college students each answered a series of increasingly personal questions, ranging from ‘would you like to be famous?’ to ‘of all the people in your family, whose death would you find the most disturbing?’

In the space of 45 minutes and 36 questions, the researchers produced astounding results: the participants (including the couple who eventually got married) reported large increases in feelings of closeness and connection.

You can find the 36 questions here. There are definitely some good ones for you to try in your next conversation.

How you ask vs what you ask

But there’s a deeper effect at play here.

The researchers say that it wasn’t actually the questions that created the deep connection between participants. It was the process, the form of the conversation, that really worked.

Arthur and Elaine Aron say the format worked so well for two main reasons:

  • First, the questions escalate in intimacy. As they progress through the question set, people increasingly open themselves up to one another in a trusting way.
  • Second, the questions are asked in a coordinated, back-and-forth way, kind of like a dance. This makes people feel like they are acting together in sync, which produces feelings of closeness.

How you ask, it turns out, can be more important than what you ask.

The Takeaway

Great conversations are fuelled by good questions, no doubt.

But as this study shows, there’s no point stressing about the perfect list of prompts to get the conversation flowing.

Instead, asking great questions is more like a dance that slowly draws us closer and closer, until we’ve built such intimacy that, hey, maybe we’ll get married!

If you want to have great conversations this year, focus less on the words and more on sharing, receiving, and learning about your conversation partner.

Even better — do it with the right body language.

3. How to use body language to have better conversations

You’ve probably heard that body language accounts for 90% of communication.

But did you know that men can tell if women are fertile by the way they walk? Or that your hand position can signal power or submissiveness? (via Eric Barker)

Body language is one of your most powerful communication tools — if you use it properly.

What body language isn’t

Despite what over-dressed salespeople might tell you, body language isn’t about having a stiff old-mate handshake or maintaining psychopathic levels of eye contact.

In fact, body language isn’t about how you act or stand around someone.

It’s about how you make them feel.

And if you’re going to get your body language right, you need to do it quickly.

The body hacks of top Ted Talkers

Vanessa van Edwards paid people to analyze hundreds of hours of TED talks and find what makes the best talks special.

Her team found that people made a decision about whether a speaker was charismatic, interesting, and likable in the first 7 seconds of their talk!

It’s interesting that first impressions happen so fast.

Even more interesting, though, is the fact that great talks can have very little to do with what you say.

The best TED-talkers aren’t getting their point across in seven seconds. Instead, they are conveying lots of information with their body language.

Body language is the highway to a great impression; the on-ramp for all great communication. Great body language makes people feel comfortable and confident that you know what you’re talking about.

Three effective body language habits

From her analysis of TED talks (and other social science research), Edwards suggests using the following three tips to put people at ease:

  1. Use your hands — a lot. The most popular TED Talkers (like Simon Sinek for example) used over 600 hand gestures in their 18 miniute talks — well above the average of 276. Other than keeping flys away, hand gestures make you seem more trustworthy. Showing your palms turns off the ancient mechanisms in our brains and signal that you’re not a threat. So get your hands out of your pockets and start waving them around. People love it!
  2. Adopt a winner’s posture. People also love being around confidence. In fact, a major study from Carnegie Mellon University found that a professional’s confidence was more important than reputation, skills, or history (wow). The easiest way to show confidence is to adopt the winner’s posture: take up space, spread you feet apart, put your hands-on-hips or out by your sides, stick chin up, and look forward. And we’re not talking Jordan Belfort desk-on-feet corporate d*ckface here. We’re talking about quiet, relaxed self-confidence — think Morgan Freeman, Keanu Reeves or Zendaya.
  3. Use (the right amount of) eye contact. In your average conversation, what % of the time do you think people hold eye contact for? Most people get this answer wrong. The truth is, eye contact is incredibly powerful, but misunderstood. There’s a video on YouTube of strangers staring into each other's eyes for one minute, and then subsequently crying, laughing, and hugging each other. According to Vanessa van Edwards, powerful eye contact is all about: making eye contact early in the conversation and avoiding the initial impulse to look away; doing most of your eye contact when listening, and not looking over people’s heads to scope the scene. If you get it right, eye contact can be a powerful way to build connections. (PS. the answer is 61%).

Sum up: Conversations can change the world

We need better conversations now, more than ever.

One report found that around 45% of employees say they’re interacting with significantly fewer people at work and 57% said they engage in fewer social activities. This disengagement quickly spirals into social isolation, which we know from Research increases reports of dissatisfaction with life, work-related stress, distrust in institutions, and substance abuse.

But on the flip side, conversations are our most powerful tool for connection.

A great conversation not only makes you feel seen and heard, it literally changes your brain, triggering the release of dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins — hormones that contribute to our overall wellbeing.

And the connecting power of conversations helps build a great life: research shows that deep relationships make us happy and that networking is the way to build a fulfilling career.

So what’s the best way to have a great conversation?

  1. Express your genuine interest. Find real common ground and when you like something about someone, say it. We like people who like us, who are like us, and who say so.
  2. Learn and share. Ask questions to learn more about the other person, and make sure to share your own experience. This reciprocity builds feelings of closeness and connection.
  3. Use your body. Make eye contact, use your hands and adopt a winners posture to create trust in your conversations.

For more insights, check out The Science of People website here.

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