Here’s the secret to avoiding awkward conversations, according to science

Posted by
Helen Booth

If you want to shine in office conversations, impress on first dates, and ensure you never have a dull encounter when meeting someone new, there are three simple rules to keep in mind.

Caroline Webb, an economist, leadership coach, and author of How to Have a Good Day (a guide to using behavioural science to improve your working life), has been researching the ingredients of great social interaction, and recently shared her insights in an interview with podcaster David Burkus.

Ready to dazzle in all your encounters? Here are the tricks you need to know.

1. Set an intention

According to Webb, the secret to a great exchange starts before the chat even gets going - and it revolves around not pre-judging others, and knowing what you want out of the conversation.

“If you go into a conversation and you’re thinking, ‘Oh, this person looks like a jerk, then what your brain is going to make sure you notice is everything that confirms that they are, indeed, a jerk,” says Webb.

Instead, Webb suggests setting the foundations for successful interaction by approaching each important conversation with a specific goal in mind.

“It really helps to think, ‘What are my intentions as I go into this conversation?’ Whatever is top-of-mind for you will shape what your brain decides to notice.”

“If you do that, you’re less likely to notice the things that are annoying, or the awkwardness that you feel. And you’re much more likely to notice the nugget of super-interestingness that is in that person. That is a fantastic foundation for rapport,” says Webb.

2. Show interest in the other person

While simply asking questions of the other person may seem like the easiest way to show interest, the quality of those questions is important too.

“A lot of the questions we ask are very factual questions, like, ‘Where did you grow up? Where do you live? What do you do?’ These don’t get to people’s motivations or emotions,” says Webb.

To move towards more interesting conversation ground, Webb advises following up factual questions with enquiries which are likely to enlicit more interesting answers.

“There is something very special about questions that say, “Oh, what made you choose to live there? What is it that you most like about the job that you do?” That’s a very different style of question than the factual question.”

3. Focus on the rewards, not the threats

Once the conversation is flowing, there’s one more thing to bear in mind: don’t worry too much about possible threats to the conversation - for example, saying the wrong thing, or stumbling over your words.

“At any given moment, our brains are scanning the environment for rewards to discover and possible threats to defend against,” says Webb.

“Defensive mode is when your brain is more focused on threats and is launching some kind of fight, flight, or freeze response.”

To avoid this crippling mindset, simply focus on asking genuine, real questions.

“Studies have shown that people find it incredibly rewarding to talk about themselves, and we don’t get much of a chance to do it. Just asking someone, ‘Tell me more about that,’ is so rewarding to the other person’s brain, that you will make sure that they are at their very best, and they will feel great about speaking to you.”

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