The Art and Science of Great Conversations

By Psychology Today Contributors published May 2, 2023 - last reviewed on May 19, 2023


This is the 2nd week of a 4-week series on conversation

Conversation is a lot like art. It’s one of those uniquely human experiences that distills much complexity and infinite variety, verging on the indefinable. Unlike art, however, conversation is not a virtuoso endeavor. It is not only inherently an ensemble enterprise, it’s also how we share what we know, date and mate, and find security. Conversation has extraordinary powers to excite, our neurons being so sensitive to face-to-face engagement that they rapidly activate reward systems in our brains. Yet surveys show that it’s losing ground to texting and other forms of communication that, at best, provide some pale illusion of satisfaction.

Why You Really Should Speak Up More

We love ’em when we have ’em, but fear of being boring—and other misperceptions—leads people to quit conversations prematurely or avoid them altogether.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D.


Rewarding as conversations can be, they are unknowable in advance. That unpredictability contains enormous possibility, but it also can give rise to anxiety, providing opportunity for misconceptions about conversation to flourish. Often enough, this creates a barrier to building relationships, preventing people from really connecting or understanding each other.

For starters, people sometimes hesitate to even initiate conversations because they mistakenly fear that they might run out of things to say. Or they pull the plug on a good discussion, thinking, wrongly, that those that last for more than a few minutes are perceived as boring by their conversation companion.


“Having a good chat is one of daily life’s most rewarding experiences, and yet people are often hesitant to set aside significant amounts of time for conversation because they are concerned that they will run out of things to talk about and that their conversation will grow dull or awkward,” says Michael Kardas of Northwestern University.


He and his team recruited pairs of strangers to engage in conversations with each other in an experimental setting. The researchers paused the participants every few minutes and asked them how they felt the interactions were going. After the first few minutes of conversation, people tended to indicate that they were enjoying themselves—but also that they feared they would run out of subjects to talk about as the discussion continued and that things would go downhill. Yet, there was no drop-off in interest or enjoyability as the conversations continued.


The longer they lasted, the more lively and pleasurable the exchanges became. “As the conversations continued, people found more material to talk about than they had expected to find, and they enjoyed themselves more than they anticipated,” Kardas reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. “In general, once people begin talking, they tend to find things that they share in common, and these commonalities propel the conversation for quite some time.”


You Also Learn More Than You Realize

In addition to misunderstanding the hedonic trajectory of face-to-face talk, people underestimate the amount of information they get out of conversations, even with random strangers encountered in daily life. They not only misjudge how much they will learn but also how much pleasure they will get out of the social interaction, finds a team of researchers led by Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago.


The undervaluing of learning seems to stem from the inherent uncertainty of conversations. It’s difficult to anticipate what one could discover before actually speaking with someone.


Epley’s earlier work has shown that people consistently underestimate the interest of others in connecting through conversation as well as how much they themselves—whether introverts or extroverts—will enjoy it. One upshot is that commuters travel in silence rather than engage with a seatmate. They not only miss out on a positive experience each time, but they also fail to learn the value of social engagement in general.


Contributing to the missed opportunities is a reticence bias. People mistakenly believe that they will be liked more if they speak less, but studies show that to be thought interesting, they need to speak more than half the time in a conversation. Researchers at Harvard and the University of Virginia found that those who speak more are viewed as more endearing than those who speak less. Further, it didn’t matter whether the conversational goal was to be liked, to be thought interesting, or to enjoy themselves. Reactions to all three aims were highly correlated; conversation partners formed global impressions of each other.


The reticence bias can prompt people to pass up worthwhile chances to socialize. Or they may unintentionally come across as uninterested or unengaged by wrongly believing that they need to pull back on their contributions to a conversation.


The shared advice of the researchers? If you want to forge deep and meaningful relationships with others, keep talking face to face. At the very least, you’ll be happier.