A friend asked me recently: am I boring? I was surprised by the question — she’s not at all boring — and asked where it was coming from. Her reply was that she only ever breaches five conversation topics, which she proceeded to list.
She wasn’t wrong about the topics — they’re the things she talks about most (though not exclusively). But she was wrong to think that sticking to favorite subjects makes her boring — those subjects are passions for her, and passion, as well as good humor, make for great conversation.
She’s not alone in her concern, though. It’s common to worry that you’re not a good conversationalist, and by extension that you aren’t liked or likable. A new study, published in Psychological Science explored the fear.
What it found, it called the “liking gap”: people “systematically underestimated how much their conversation partners liked them and enjoyed their company.” That is to say, people like you more than you think.
But remembering that isn’t always enough to feel confident that those around you, especially new people, enjoy your conversation and like you.
To feel more in control, following these five strategies that great conversationalists regularly use:
Let your partners talk about themselves
A study by several Harvard researchers found that talking about yourself is a pleasure akin to eating. As in, people love it. Study participants went as far as to give up money for the opportunity to talk about themselves. What this means is that letting people talk about themselves will help them enjoy the conversation and can make you more likeable. The best way to facilitate that?
Ask this type of question
As you move through your conversation, instead of responding to your partner’s story with a relatable anecdote, focus on really listening and asking follow up questions. A study last year revealed that this simple step actually made people more likeable. We all ask questions. But prioritizing them can make a real difference.
Be careful about how personal you go
I took French throughout my schooling, and something I heard again and again over the years was not to ask a French person what their job is. In France and around Europe, it’s considered an overly personal question, and topics like politics are considered a more neutral — and intellectual — conversation space. This probably comes out of the fact that in Europe, where class has a longer and perhaps more complicated history, your profession has historically been deeply attached to your social status, and your social status has been trenchantly difficult to change. Asking a profession, then, amounts to asking, “what’s your social status?” In America, where we like to think of class as something changeable and thus less defining, and where work has less historically inscribed relationship to class, we don’t lend the question so much weight.
That’s all to say that different questions can be considered “too personal” in different places. A good rule of thumb is take a topic that isn’t personal, like pop culture or sports, and ask for a personal take. As the conversation goes on, gage through follow up questions and your partner’s response whether or or not to move into more fraught subjects like politics and more deeply personal subjects like family.
It can be tempting to slip into platitudes and white lies in an attempt to stay likeable — a new study has shown that we associate a lot of fear with being honest, because we expect a negative reaction (and perhaps dislike) from our conversation partners as a result. But these fears are actually largely unfounded: people don’t usually have the negative reactions to honesty that we expect, and we end up feeling really great, too, after speaking up honestly.
The study notes two main kinds of honest talk that you can draw on for this: give honest feedback ( at work, this might mean some constructive criticism about a colleague’s performance), and answer personal questions honestly — if someone at a party asks you how you’re doing, answer with how you’re really feeling, even if that means saying something like, “Actually, I’m feeling really overwhelmed right now.” Then use the opportunity to follow up with a question about your conversation partner: “Have you ever felt like you were struggling to keep up with everything? How do you cope when you do?”
Leverage your body language
Smiling, making eye contact, and leaning in towards the person you are talking to all signify, without words, that you feel compassion and interest for what someone has to say. And as much as you want to be liked, the person you are speaking with wants to be liked as well. Making them feel special and heard will make them like and appreciate you, as well. We’ve all been in conversation with that disconcertingly charismatic person who looks at us so intently, so deeply, that we think we’re the only person who matters. You can use that person’s often wordless techniques. You may even find that you are that person yourself!