Have We Lost the Need for Meaningful “Deep” Conversations?

Ray Williams
11 min readFeb 17, 2022
Image: Pinterest

There are signs that both on personal and organizational levels having in-person meaningful, deep conversations have declined. Some have attributed it to the forceable isolation occasioned by the COVID pandemic, and some have pointed to the increased use of digital communication devices which long preceded the pandemic. So too, has increased political polarization and tribalism meant that having meaningful deep conversations with others, particularly strangers, are less valued and entered into.

In my thirty plus years of training and coaching leaders, I’ve been struck by an often ignored important aspect of good leadership: the art of having meaningful conversations. I’m not referred to the typical one-on-one conversation between a leader and an subordinate or colleague that is specific task focused, or superficial, but rather, a deep conversation that touches upon the mental and emotional states of the other.

The Personal Conversation with Strangers

A 2014 study by Nicholas Eply and Juliana Schroeder published in the Journal of Experimental Psychologywhich found in nine new studies involving people on trains, planes, in taxis and waiting rooms that although our instinct is to ignore strangers, we are happier when we chat to them. Importantly, this was true for introverts as well as extraverts. The researchers also found that the commuters’ reluctance to strike up a conversation with a stranger was down to a mistaken belief that strangers wouldn’t want to talk to them.

In 2021, a team that included Nicholas Epley, one of the authors of the initial paper, published a study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General showed that from a study of train commuters in London, those assigned to talk with a stranger reported having a significantly more positive experience, and learning significantly more, than those assigned to a solitude or control condition.

Going Deep in Conversation

Many of us we want to have deep and meaningful relationships with others, rather than superficial ones, and we know that sharing intimate stories can create them. But many people may be unsure about when to move past small talk to something more meaningful. According to a 2021 study again involving Epley and led by Michael Kardas, the answer is: right away. The participants in this research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, overestimated how awkward a deep conversation with a stranger would be — and also underestimated how interested strangers would be in their revelations. And though the participants expected to prefer a shallow over a deep conversation with a stranger, this was not the case. The deep conversations left them feeling more connected.

The researchers conducted twelve experiments with more than 1,800 participants in total to examine the degree to which others are interested in connecting through conversation.

In the first initial experiments, participants discussed intimate questions with a stranger, such as “Can you describe a time you cried in front of another person?” The participants reported how they expected to feel after these conversations and then reported their actual experiences. Participants underestimated both their own interest in listening to the other person and how interested they perceive their partner would be in listening to them. Participants also reported feeling less awkward, and happier and more connected to their partner than they anticipated.

“Deep conversations between strangers tend to go better than people expect,” Kardas told PsyPost. “Before speaking, people expected strangers to be relatively uninterested in the content of the conversation. Yet after speaking, people indicated that the person they spoke with was more interested and caring than they expected. As a result, people felt more connected and happier after speaking with a stranger than they had anticipated, and deep conversations between strangers felt less awkward than expected as well.”

The researchers also compared shallow versus deep discussion questions, and compared conversations between strangers versus known family members or friends.

Psychologist Matthias Mehl and his team set out to study happiness and deep talk. His study, published in the journal Psychological Science, involved college students who wore an electronically activated recorder with a microphone on their shirt collar that captured 30-second snippets of conversation every 12.5 minutes for four days. Effectively, this created a conversational “diary” of their day.

Then researchers went through the conversations and categorized them as either small talk (talk about the weather, a recent TV show, etc.) or more substantive conversation (talk about philosophy, current affairs, etc.). Researchers were careful not to automatically label certain topics a certain way — if the speakers analyzed a TV show’s characters and their motivations, this conversation was considered substantive.

The researchers found that about a third of the students’ conversations were considered substantive, while a fifth consisted of small talk. Some conversations didn’t fit neatly into either category, such as discussions that focused on practical matters like who would take out the trash.

The researchers also studied how happy the participants were, drawing data from life satisfaction reports the students completed as well as feedback from people in their lives.

The results? Mehl and his team found that the happiest person in the study had twice as many substantive conversations, and only one-third the amount of small talk, as the unhappiest person. Almost every other conversation the happiest person had — about 46 percent of the day’s conversations — were substantive.

Image: Amazon

Does Giving Positive Feedback to the Other Person Enhance Deep Conversation?

We may hesitate in conversations with strangers to give positive feedback or compliments because they are not familiar or you may be worried about how they would receive it. A research study by Xuan Zhao and Nicholas Epley, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Earlier research has shown that giving compliments draws both strangers and friends closer together. It also costs nothing, either financially or in terms of effort. And yet this work, led by Xuan Zhao on participants in the US, consistently found that pairs of friends undervalued the positive effect of compliments made to the other — they underestimated the resulting feelings of warmth in the recipient and overestimated how awkward that recipient would feel. This mistaken viewpoint seemed to have real-world effects: the participants also reported generally giving fewer compliments than they felt they should give, or even would like to give.

What if you don’t fully believe in the compliment that you’re giving? “People may be reluctant to flatter others with insincere compliments because they overestimate the likelihood that their insincerity will be detected,” the researchers write. In other words, do it anyway — odds are they’ll take your comment at face value.

Deep Conversations Leave a Lasting Memory

In 2021, a paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology:General by Gus Cooney, Erica J. Boothby and Mariana Lee revealed the existence of another conversation-related gap: the “thought gap”. After a conversation, we tend to think about the person we’ve been talking to, reflecting on their stories or perhaps their advice, note Gus Cooney at the University of Philadelphia and colleagues. But though we do this ourselves, the team found in a series of studies that their participants mistakenly believed that they thought more afterwards about a person they’d had a conversation with than the other person did about them. “Collectively, these studies demonstrate that people remain on their conversation partners’ minds more than they know,” the team writes. One of the reasons this message is important is this: in one of the studies, learning how much the other person was actually thinking about them affected their willingness to reconcile after an argument.

Overall, then, for such a social species, we’re surprisingly bad at judging how conversations, and the specific content of these conversations, affect our relationships, and our own wellbeing. But the overwhelming take away message from these studies, at least, is positive: it’s all better than you think, so stop worrying, and get sharing.

In her book, The Art of Conversation: A Guided Tour of a Neglected Pleasure, Catherine Blyth points out the sorry state of disrepair that conversation has fallen into-and then, taking examples from history, literature, philosophy, anthropology, and popular culture, she gives us the tools to rebuild. She argues the following: “Research has found that with a serious topic or a good friend, we measure a conversation’s success by how enthralled we were by what the other person said. Whereas, the less familiar the other person, the more trivial the topic, the likelier we are to rate the experience by our own performance.”

In his outstanding book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being, psychologist Martin Seligman emphasizes the deep listening as a requisite for meaningful conversations.

How Social Media is Affecting Our Ability to Have Meaningful Conversations

In addition to the isolation and restrictions caused by COVID, before that, social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, Whatsapp, Facetime and Zoom have severely restricted peoples’ face-to-face conversations. In addition we can talk to virtual virtual assistants such as Alexa, Cortana or Siri — commanding them to play our favourite songs, films, or tell us the weather forecast.

Often these ways of communicating have cut the need or preference to having in person conversations. This has led to some of the conversational snippets of our daily lives now taking place mainly via technological devices. We no longer need to talk with shop assistants, receptionists, bus drivers or even coworkers, we simply engage with a screen to communicate whatever it is we want to say.

For many people the only time they may have in person conversations is when their digital technology is not available or doesn’t work. For instance, human contact occurs when we call for an assistant to help us when an item is not recognised at the self-service checkout.

As a result, people are devaluing the importance of having personal conversations other than the quick transactional ones. It seems easier to text someone rather than meet with them.

Melanie Chan at Leeds Becket University has done some research into digital technologies and indicates that phrases such as “word of mouth” or “keeping in touch” point to the importance of face-to-face conversation.Indeed, face-to-face conversation can strengthen social ties: with our neighbours, friends, work colleagues and other people we encounter during our day.

Chan argues that face to face conversations acknowledges peoples’ existence, their humanness, in ways that instant messaging and texting do not. Face-to-face conversation is a rich experience that involves drawing on memories, making connections, making mental images, associations and choosing a response. Face-to-face conversation is also multisensory: it’s not just about sending or receiving pre-programmed trinkets such as likes, cartoon love hearts and grinning yellow emojis.

When having a conversation using video you mainly see another person’s face only as a flat image on a screen. But when we have a face-to-face conversation in real life, we can look into someone’s eyes, reach out and touch them. We can also observe the other person’s body posture and the gestures they use when speaking — and interpret these accordingly. All these factors, contribute to the sensory intensity and depth of the face-to-face conversations we have in daily life.

Sherry Turkle, professor of social studies of science and technology, and author of The Empathy Diaries, tells us that when we first “speak through machines, [we] forget how essential face-to-face conversation is to our relationships, our creativity, and our capacity for empathy”. But then “we take a further step and speak not just through machines but to machines”.

Ultimately the sound, touch, smell and observation of bodily cues we experience when having a face-to-face conversation cannot be fully replaced by our technological devices. Communicating and connecting with others through face-to-face discussion is valuable because it is not something that can be edited, paused or replayed.

Characteristics of a Deep Conversation

Wanda Thibodeau, writing in Inc.com, provides these characteristics of a deep conversation:

  • Asking open-ended questions.
  • Demonstrating your vulnerability
  • Focusing your attention on the other person.
  • Showing empathy and compassion.
  • Demonstrating active listening.
  • Recollecting things the other person has said.

Deep Conversations in the Workplace

In their book, 5 Conversations: How to Transform Trust, Engagement, and Performance at Work by Nigel Purse and Nick Cowley, good leaders have one-on-one conversations with their employees that focus on:

  • Establishing a trusting relationship: A conversation with a team member to share a deep, mutual understanding of your respective drivers, preferences, motivators, and de-motivators for high performance at work, and to understand what makes each other tick.
  • Showing genuine appreciation: A conversation to help team members focus on where they are being successful, to jointly understand the reasons for their success, to say how much you appreciate their contribution, and find further ways in which they can deploy their skills and talents to benefit both themselves and the organization.

In a paper presented at the International Conference on Organizational Learning (OLKC), authors Daina Mazuitis and Natalie Slawinski of the Ivey School of Business presented an argument for the importance of meaningful conversations leaders need to have with employees to enhance organizational learning and change. Organizational learning is defined in their paper as “a multi-level dynamic process through which the thoughts and actions of individuals and groups change and become embedded in the organization over time.” They stress meaningful dialogue lies at the heart of authentic leadership and successful transformational change.

What Will Happen After the Pandemic?

In an article by Amit Kumar, Michael Kardas, and Nicholas Epley on the importance meaningful conversations during the pandemic, they contend: “Even as the COVID-19 pandemic persists, there’s hope that life will return to some level of normalcy in 2022. This includes more opportunities to meet new people and build friendships, a process that’s critical for mental and physical well-being.” They express this concern: “Even before fears of a virus compelled most people to stay physically distant, our research suggests that people were already keeping too much social distance from one another.

The authors conclude “In particular, our forthcoming behavioral science research suggests that people tend to be overly pessimistic about how conversations with new acquaintances will play out.

They said: “Across a dozen experiments, that they conducted participants consistently underestimated how much they would enjoy talking with strangers. This was especially true when we asked them to have the kinds of substantive conversations that actually foster friendships. Because of these mistaken beliefs, it seems as though people reach out and connect with others less often and in less meaningful ways than they probably should.”

In several experiments, the participants first reported how they expected to feel after discussing relatively weighty questions like, “what are you most grateful for in your life?” and “when is the last time you cried in front of another person?”

These participants believed they would feel somewhat awkward and only moderately happy discussing these topics with a stranger. But after the researchers prompted them to actually do so, they reported that their conversations were less awkward than they had anticipated. Furthermore, they felt happier and more connected to the other person than they had assumed.

In other experiments, we asked people to write down questions they would normally discuss when first getting to know someone — “weird weather we’re having these days, isn’t it?” — and then to write down deeper and more intimate questions than they would normally discuss, like asking whether the other person was happy with their life.

Again, the researchers found that the participants were especially likely to overestimate how awkward the ensuing conversations about the more meaningful topics would be, while underestimating how happy those conversations would make them.

These mistaken beliefs matter because they can create a barrier to human connection. If you mistakenly think a substantive conversation will feel uncomfortable, you’re going to probably avoid it. And then you might never realize that your expectations are off the mark.

The authors argue: “Having deeper conversations joins a growing list of opportunities for social engagement — including expressing gratitude, sharing compliments and reaching out and talking to an old friend — that end up feeling a lot better than we might think.”

The COVID pandemic has taken a deep toll on intimate and personal connections among people, and as we slowly return to more normal social connection, engaging in deep conversations, particularly with strangers, will have a positive therapeutic impact.

Ray Williams

Author/ Executive Coach-Helping People Live Better Lives and Serve Others