A conversation is an animal. It’s created by the people who start it, but it has its own life and it’s own heartbeat. You can’t really control conversations without breaking them, but you can learn to tame them, feed them, and lead them in interesting directions. Outright control of a conversation is manipulation, and it’s a nasty business that tends to preclude the really interesting possibilities. What I’m talking about here is facilitation: gently nudging conversations into more and more powerful territory, without really understanding what will happen beforehand.
Conversations are like animals in that they evolve over time. This is great news, because even though science still doesn’t understand conversations that well, we do understand evolution. Recent research in a field called emergence or complexity theory has demonstrated that systems which evolve have a surprising amount in common: from ecosystems, to economies to cities to the development of the internet. In all of these systems, and in conversations, the same basic process happens over and over again. If you understand that process it’s possible to nudge it along, to take the slowly grinding wheel of evolution and give it a few extra shoves.
It turns out that internets and conversations and fungal spores and social movements are all just doing the same three things, over and over and over. Pretent for a second that you’re a DJ, looking out over a packed club that’s just beginning to move. You’re swapping beats in and out, trying to figure out what gets the crowd moving. As you swap songs and watch the crowd, here’s what’s going through your head:
Differentiate- Some types of music get the crowd moving and others don’t. Do they want hip hop or reggea? Top 40 or mid-90s? How do they respond when you up the bass?
Select- Of all of the musical choices at your fingertips, you want to identify just the ones that get the crowd moving.
Amplify- Now queu up more of the stuff that works and less of the stuff that doesn’t.
Repeat- Now you’ll be able see how the crowd responds to your new, amplified music and refine it even further. As the crowd shifts over the course of the night, you’ll be able to shift with them. You just keep repeating all night long: differentiate, select, amplify, differentiate, select, amplify, until the crowd is going wild.
The same basic principle is true for conversations. In conversations you’re not (necessarily) trying to get people on the dancefloor, you’re trying to create emotional resonance. Believe it or not, when you have a good conversation a certain part of your brain, called the limbic system, actually syncs up with the brain of the person you’re talking to. Like, if both of you were sitting and chatting in an MRI machine your limbic systems would sort of pulse in unison. Dogs have limbic systems that are bigger than ours, which is why you can make eye contact with a dog and instantly feel like you’re having a conversation.
Limbic systems sync up when you are feeling the same thing as someone else. The connection gets stronger when the feeling gets stronger, and when you become more accutely aware of the fact that someone else is sharing it. If DJs want to get people moving on the dance floor, adept conversationalists zero in on shared, strong emotion.
Uncovering this sort of emotion can be tricky. Most people don’t talk about strong feelings easily. Once polite tactic is to meander around conversation topics that both people are emotionally attached to (“how about that local sports team?”), but that rarely goes anywhere unique or interesting. Instead it’s best to listen for topics that contain little blips of emotional energy, select them, and amplify.
For example: how should you open a conversation with someone that you don’t know? Let’s take a look at some standard openings:
“It’s hot out today!”- You’ve just expressed a strong feeling, way to set the bar. But you’ve also made the conversation about the weather. They’re sure to feel SOMETHING about the weather, so you’ll have enough emotion to string a conversation on, but those emotions probably won’t get too intense. You’ve just set a template for mediocrity. Next.
“How are you doing?”- Gutsy. You’ve just pinged their overall emotional state. If they are particularly open and they’re particularly open they may talk about something that they have strong feelings about in that moment, and you’ll have a conversation topic that you can take you far. If not they’ll say “Fine, how about you?” and you’ll have to take another shot.
“What do you do?”- Asking someone about their work brings up whatever emotions they feel about that work. All too often this is a mix of boredom and frustration, not the most interesting wavelength to hop on with someone. Like the weather, this conversation topic is low-risk (they probably have some feelings about what they do all day) but low-reward (the strongest of those emotions are probably ones that you don’t share in a precise way.)
“What do you do for fun?”- This is my personal favorite, because it’s got a great emotion to latch onto. It gets people reliving a bunch of positive memories, which makes let’s you take the conversation in a direction that’s interesting and upbeat. It also gives you important information about how to have fun with someone, which is the backbone of most good friendships.
From Good to Mind-Blowing
Say you’ve struck up a good rapport and found a topic of conversation that’s got someone excited. You’re probably both having fun, but you wouldn’t call it mind-blowing. The difference between a good conversation and a mind-blowing conversation is that good conversations are entertaining and mind-blowing conversations are transformative. People walk out of them different than when they walked into them. That’s the kind of conversation we’re going for.
In good conversations we recount things that we’ve experienced before, and have some good, clean fun reliving the emotions involved. In mind-blowing conversations we experience powerful emotions for the first time, which makes them much messier and much more potent. Once someone feels safe enough you can nudge conversations toward these unique, emotionally powerful experiences. You just need to know how to listen.
Most of the time, most people talk about things that they’ve talked about. If you’re talking about the game next Friday, chances are it will be like the game next Friday. If you’re asking someone about their hometown, they’ll probably give the same schpiel that they’ve been giving since they left. Where this isn’t true is around major points of transition in people’s lives: big changes that are happening or that people want to happen. Points of transition can be obvious, like having a baby or starting a new job, or they can be subtle, like a nagging sense of spiritual uncertainty.
If you get whiff of a transition point, steer the conversation towards it and learn what you can. Parts of the transition will be picked over, things that the person you’re talking to has already talked about ad nauseum with friends and relatives, but if you listen closely you can find patches of conversational territory that are still fresh and unexplored. These are the areas where the conversation can become more powerful; where new, unexplored emotions sit waiting in the reeds.
When people start to delve into these powerful unexplored places, tap into your sense of empathy. Most humans are surprisingly empathetic. If we see someone get poked in the arm we don’t just imagine the pain, the part of our brain that connects to our arm actually experiences pain. There’s a whole section of our brain that does nothing but keep track of which feelings come from us and which come from the people we’re looking at. When this part of the brain shuts down, people actually physically feel pain then they see it inflicted on others.
This powerful sense of empathy means that when you see someone going through a strong emotional experience for the first time it’s easy to match their wavelength. Armed with your sense of empathy and compassion you can feel what they feel, pushing the conversation to places that are steadily more powerful.