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Are You a Good Conversationalist? Probably Not

How to Really Engage With Others

Leanna M.W. Lui, HBSc

Disclosures

November 12, 2021

How are you?

I'm good. I'm fine. Everything's alright.

Without a doubt, I've had someone ask me this question at least once a day, or I've asked this question to someone else. Their response is either "I'm good" or "I'm okay" or some variation of that. 

It's as though there's some societal force that compels me to ask this exact question and respond with a generic response. It lacks ingenuity and meaningfulness, which is disappointing. As ironic as it may seem, "How are you?" is more of a close-ended statement than it is a question. Think about it: When someone asks you this question, do you feel compelled to provide a blanket statement or do you feel as though you can truly tell someone how you're feeling and trust that they'll respond appropriately?

Most might agree that this past year and a half have been nothing similar to "good" or "alright." With the curveball the pandemic has thrown, and the general ups and downs of life, each of us is likely to spend more than a few words describing how we feel. Perhaps this is an unpopular viewpoint, but I would rather skip to the meat of the conversation rather than have someone ask how I'm doing and respond with a statement that is opposite to my current state. Or rather, it might be time for us to reflect on what it means to genuinely ask someone, "How are you?"

While most people have years of experience conversing with others, in my experience, many people tend to self-promote rather than engage in a two-way conversation; they talk about themselves, don't ask questions — something I'm sure I'm guilty of doing on occasion. Good conversations are driven by behaviors and questions that engage all parties. 

An important psychological mechanism of being a good conversationalist is to ask more questions. With this in mind, robust conversations — and to that extent, relationships — are associated with greater question-asking. That is, the more people ask questions, the better they are liked. Think back to a good conversation you had with someone; probably there was a high level of engagement, a balance of question and response. Perhaps you also felt considered and cared for in that conversation, which created social closeness and intimacy. All in all, there is a perceived responsiveness (eg, validation, care, listening, understanding) associated with more question-asking.

There are other ways we can purposefully interact with others, such as carefully observing friends or family, which may include noticing changes in behavior, appearance, or mood. Being mindful of any vulnerabilities or weaknesses inherent to a relationship due to power dynamics is an important factor to consider. Additionally, ensuring that you're in a healthy state to engage meaningfully with others, and asking open-ended questions without judgement, are behaviors to keep in mind.

Especially during tumultuous times, we may need to rethink the way we approach our interactions with others. Rather than increase the number of interactions, it may be time to increase the quality of our exchanges with friends, families, and colleagues. With that, I would genuinely like to ask you again, how are you doing?

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About Leanna Lui
Leanna M.W. Lui, HBSc, completed an HBSc global health specialist degree at the University of Toronto, where she is now an MSc student. Her interests include mood disorders, health economics, public health, and applications of artificial intelligence.

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