Seven ways to hack a conversation

by Dorian Minors

December 1, 2015

Analects  |  Newsletter


Starting a conversation with someone new is always kind of terrifying, I mean dealing with approach anxiety is something everyone faces. But it doesn’t have to be. We’ve talked before about how uncertainty drives our conversation. What we don’t…

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Starting a conversation with someone new is always kind of terrifying, I mean dealing with approach anxiety is something everyone faces. But it doesn’t have to be. We’ve talked before about how uncertainty drives our conversation. What we don’t know about others makes us hugely uncomfortable and the way we interact revolves around reducing this uncertainty. We want to know how people are going to act and what they’re going to say. In fact there’s a whole theory, called uncertainty reduction theory about it. Good news for us, because it shows us seven ways we can shortcut this particular drive and shortcut our conversations into something worthwhile. The theory calls these axioms, but I’m going to call them hacks.

Seven hacks for awesome early conversation

  1. High verbal output. The more we talk, the more information we have to draw conclusions about each other and thus know each other. The better we know each other, the less we’ll need to talk because the less uncertain we’ll feel.
  2. Showing non-verbal warmth. This is any kind of paralanguage (the stuff we do that isn’t talking) that communicates warmth to each other. So, touching and looking into each other’s eyes. As time goes on, we’re going to do more of this because as we feel less uncertain, we’re happier to show each other how much we like each other.
  3. Engage in information-seeking. This refers to asking questions designed specifically to elicit information (as opposed to following a social script). Ask more of these and respond to more of these and we’ll close that uncertainty gap faster. Obviously, we’re going to ask less questions as time goes on, firstly because we already know these things but secondly because we feel less uncertain and are thus less motivated to gather information.
  4. Engage in self-disclosure. Tell them stuff about yourself. More uncertainty means that we’re less likely to disclose, and more means more (here’s why, and it’s the reason that conversation creates intimacy). If you disclose stuff about yourself, you’re going to make things more comfortable for both of you.
  5. Reciprocity. Make sure you go tit-for-tat when you’re talking. We don’t trust each other yet, so when I talk about something, you need to share a similar thing to make me feel comfortable. You ask me about my job, you’d better tell me about your job once I’m done explaining. And to the same level of detail as me. As the relationship goes on, that immediate one-for-one exchange decreases and we feel more comfortable sharing in a more one-sided way.
  6. Highlight your similarity. The more similar we are with someone, the more comfortable we are with them because we can predict what they’re going to do (it’s why similarity is one of three keys to attraction).
  7. Highlight your shared networks. The more similar our circles are, the less uncertain we tend to be. Clearly if we like the same people and people we trust have vetted you, then I’m not going to feel quite so nervous.

What can you expect to see?

Well, those seven hacks weren’t the only things the theory talks about. It also talks about two more ‘axioms’. The first is liking. Those seven hacks are directly related to the amount that we like (or don’t like) someone. Now, we can be certain about someone and not like them, it’s true. But uncertainty is always a barrier to intimacy and a feeling of connection to someone, which in itself prevents us from liking that person. The last axiom is communication satisfaction. Communication is the key to intimacy and without certainty in the other person, we can’t be satisfied that our communication is being effective. We also don’t know whether we can trust the other person enough to converse freely.

So by keeping in mind the seven ‘hacks’ or axioms, and the outcomes they can have, you can really jumpstart a relationship. But, if seven hacks are too many to remember, just remember one thing. I think it was Yeats who said that there are no strangers, just friends not yet met. But exploring that unknown means dealing with uncertainty. Reduce that and you’re well on your way.

Reducing uncertainty requires bravery. So does creativity. Learn how here. Or speaking of talking to people, learn how talking to yourself can boost your productivity. Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and ‘the good life’ at The Dirt Psychology.

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