Can you believe how gorgeous the weather is today?
That’s a fine topic of discussion for a stranger on the elevator or a co-worker in between meetings, but sometimes we need “big talk,” the opposite of the nearly universally-dreaded and equally-difficult-to-escape “small talk” that makes up so much of our days.
Those close-ended small talk questions are hard to avoid in lulls, even with a partner, friend, or people we find ourselves wanting to have deeper conversations with. Questions about the weather, a particular television show, or even a compliment about their shoes can end quickly and leave the conversation wanting.
Oftentimes, delving a little further and putting into some work the conversation will yield big results.
Studies have shown that asking bigger questions in conversations, whether it be with a partner, friend or acquaintance, lends to a more developed relationship and sense of trust. It also can be just as fulfilling to you on a conversational level and provide short-term happiness.
A study done by psychologist Matthias Mehl basically eavesdropped on college students by having them wear mics for four days, creating a conversation diary of their days. After the conversations were recorded, researchers sifted them into categories of small talk or big talk and then studied the participants’ happiness.
The study found that the happiest person in the group had twice as many big talk conversations and a third less small talk conversations.
Want to make big talk questions a part of your life?
So what counts as big talk? That really depends on you.
In the study mentioned, researchers said that some conversations that were recorded were difficult to put in a category because they fell somewhere in between. But think of big talk questions as topics that spark communication beyond a few words like “thanks” and “yes.” These topics should require some thought, so depending on the situation they can vary in depth.
- Likes: What is a perfect day to you?
- Dislikes: What is the weirdest interaction you’ve had with a stranger?
- Life experiences: What was your most rewarding achievement? Why?
- Passions: What gets you out of bed in the morning?
- Personal philosophies: What do you value most in a friendship?
Kinds of deeper conversation
The big talk you have with your best friend isn’t the same big talk you would have with your boss, but digging a little deeper in conversation can be important to both relationships. They’ll just look different, and that’s completely fine.
Getting to the big talk can feel a little uncomfortable though. It’s kind of awkward just jumping into a conversation with “So, what’s the biggest accomplishment of your life?” without any prior conversation or context.
But leading with the work of a recent project can easily turn into a conversation about goals and achievements: “I’m relieved that deadline is passed. How did you feel about it?” can easily mutate into a conversation that has a deeper meaning, like what shaped their passion for the work or what part of the job they like most.
These types of conversations help build relationships with colleagues — which can improve workplace morale, build relationships that help serve the team and just make a 9-to-5 a lot easier to get through. Sure, they aren’t conversations about the meaning of life, but they help to connect you with the people you’re surrounded by all day and is far better than a rehashed chat about the most recent episode of the “Bachelor” or weekend plans.
Finding a way to ask bigger questions and talk about big ideas is quite a bit easier with somebody you know a little better, like a new-ish friend or somebody you’ve been dating for a while.
Conversations about what makes you frustrated about your job or why you’re passionate about animal welfare are more comfortable, and just jumping into these conversations is easier.
At work “Do you know what I was thinking about earlier?” can seem sort of random, but with friends or people in a more casual setting, it can be an opening to big talk.
Another way to initiate good big talk is to make “we” statements. That way they can contribute to what you’re already thinking about. Shoot for something like, “It seems like we both like yoga classes; how did you start your practice?” or “We’re both on this journey because…” That puts the conversation on equal footing between you and the other person.
Listening is important
Perhaps the most important part about reaching a new level of discussion is to really pay attention to what the other person is saying. Obviously. But sometimes that’s more difficult than you think it’d be.
The point of big talk is that everybody in the conversation is engaged. You want to ask questions that push along the conversation. That undoubtedly requires listening.
If they mention a detail that catches your attention, ask more about it. Why did they decide to take that internship after college? What was the biggest lesson they learned?
When a conversation is going great and you have a lot to add to it, it can be hard to be patient and not insert your own stories, but it pays off. People who feel like they’re being heard tend to engage more and will add more to their stories. Becoming a better listener is a skill all in itself, but try keeping eye contact with the person, repeating back some of what they say or asking more questions that you don’t understand about their story.
It goes without saying that you should keep an open mind during big talk conversations. There isn’t any point if it’s going to end up being a point and counterpoint discussion. At that point, it might be better to just stick to talking about a funny meme you saw on Instagram.
When small talk is still okay
And yes, there is still a time and place for small talk. Filling the quiet with the person sitting next to you at a conference or wedding dinner is perfectly fine and mostly expected. A friendly comment about the panel or newlyweds has its advantages: quick, friendly and to the point.
Engaging in big talk doesn’t mean you have to give up small talk completely. It just means focusing on recognizing when you have an opportunity to delve deeper and making the most of it, for the sake of better relationships and your own happiness.