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When Julien Mirivel arrived in the United States in 1994, he was a 15-year-old exchange student from France who didn’t speak English. People in his Iowa host town were welcoming and friendly, but he felt isolated by his inability to communicate using anything other than simple gestures. “Even basic conversations came with a feeling of doubt,” he recalls.

Mirivel learned a lot during those early years in Iowa, and he’s now the author of several books on positive communication. He believes the longing to connect deeply with others isn’t limited to learning a new language. “We yearn to have meaningful relationships, but without the ability to recognize the complexity of communication, we can only go so deep.”

Many of us struggle to have satisfying conversations. We may feel confused about when to open up or how to ask the kind of questions that help us get to know someone better. We might feel stuck in the shallows of small talk and clueless about how to go deeper. If we’re longing for more connection, it can help to view communication itself as a new language — and we can learn to improve our vocabulary with practice.

These skills help build a communication style that can connect us more deeply to loved ones and strangers alike.

1) Speak Kindly to Yourself

Most of us know the basics of a good dinner conversation: Address a person by their name, ask open-ended questions, and offer sincere compliments. But if we’re struggling to connect more deeply, it’s worth considering how our self-talk could be getting in the way.

“Sometimes, it helps to just notice the kinds of thoughts that are firing through your mind,” suggests Loretta Graziano Breuning, PhD, author of ­Habits of a Happy Brain. “The brain gets into patterns and habits, and it takes some effort to shift those. The first step is to hear yourself.”

If our interior monologue contains more harsh criticism than it does neutral observation, we’re likely to monitor ourselves too closely. This can prompt discomfort with connecting; we might avoid making conversation because our critical inner voice insists that we’re not interesting or funny enough.

Breuning suggests writing down some of your inner commentary and noticing how it makes you feel. This helps cultivate more objectivity. Once you’ve noticed any negative patterns in how you talk to yourself, you can start to replace them.

To begin, try speaking to yourself as you would to a good friend, suggests Judith Hanson Lasater, PhD, PT, coauthor of What We Say Matters: Practicing Nonviolent Communication.

“Notice what words or phrases help you feel softer and less stressed,” she advises.

Just as negative self-talk can send you into a habit loop, positive encouragement does the same. It primes your brain to relate to yourself — and by extension, to other people — in a new way.

2) Greet Others Warmly

Once you’ve established the habit of noticing and softening the way you talk to yourself, improving your connection with others can start with a friendly hello.

“Greeting one another is found in every culture, and there’s a reason for that,” says Mirivel. “Greeting is at the heart of how we create relationships.”

Think about how you feel when a new doctor walks into the exam room and greets you warmly rather than by launching right into questions about your medical history. “There’s a huge difference for how that conversation will flow from there,” Mirivel notes.

The same is true in any setting. Imagine your first day at a new job, or attending a party where you know only the host. Then someone makes eye contact, smiles, and says a sincere hello. “It doesn’t matter where you are or who you are — that feels like a moment of uplifting engagement,” says Mirivel. “It’s an opening.”

If you’re shy about initiating, take small steps. Try greeting the barista before you order your coffee, or say a quick hi to the person you often pass on your evening dog walk. Notice how it shifts the tone of your interactions toward friendliness, and relish how good that feels.

3) Cultivate Curiosity

Open-ended questions can deepen conversation. But showing genuine interest in the answer is what really counts, says Celeste Headlee, author of We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter.

“Asking a good question isn’t enough; you need an honest curiosity behind it for a meaningful connection,” she asserts. “People will tell you stories that floor you; it’s just a matter of finding out about them.”

There are other ways that curiosity connects us: When you’re really absorbed in someone’s story, you don’t have to think about body language or tone. You’ll most likely lean in, make eye contact, and nod at certain intervals. You’re not trying to appear interested — it’s just how humans behave when they’re deep in conversation.

“This is a Homo sapiens’ superpower — the ability to read subtle signs from each other and to send out our own,” Headlee says. When you want to signal interest, “don’t worry about how you’re holding yourself or what your hands are doing. Just listen to the other person and soak up what you can.”

For tough conversations, notes Lasater, curiosity is even more helpful. She recalls a long car ride with a person whose political views were at odds with her own. Rather than avoid politics, she decided to stay curious, ask sincere questions, and find out more.

In the end, she and her fellow passenger still disagreed, but they respected each other’s ability to listen. They also discovered that they shared many values about what makes a good community, even as they had different ideas for how to build it.

“Curiosity helps us find a place that’s more neutral,” Lasater says. “Our culture is so deeply divided between ‘wrong’ and ‘right.’ One practice to find connection is to stop using those words.”

She suggests simply letting go of that duality. “It comes from a place of superiority, where we’re trying to create a world where we always feel right.” (If you’re feeling hermetically sealed in your own opinions see “How to Cultivate an Open Mindset” for ideas to help open your mind to other viewpoints.)

Finally, she adds, try examining your own reactions — especially when you’re online. If you find your nervous system fires up as soon as you go on Facebook or the app formerly known as Twitter, consider a break from social media. Then pay attention to whether it becomes easier to maintain your curiosity during in-person conversations.

4) Practice, Practice, Practice

When you’re learning a new language, full immersion may speed your progress. Still, as Mirivel discovered while learning English in that small Iowa town, practicing with one or two trusted people makes it all less overwhelming. The same is true when learning to deepen your conversations.

“Understanding is easier if you genuinely care about the other person and feel comfortable with them,” he says. For example, if you and a close friend practice compassionate communication strategies over a weekly lunch, you can make mistakes and try again more easily than if you were practicing those strategies on social media.

The phone is another good tool for conversation practice, but there are advantages to speaking face-to-face. Eye contact and body language help us track how our words are landing, and chatting in person tends to be more freeform and wide-ranging, says Mirivel. That allows for more discovery and deeper connection.

Practicing conversation in a nonjudgmental atmosphere is particularly crucial for people who fret about saying the wrong thing, sparking disagreement, or being judged.

It’s also helpful for people who have a hard time speaking in a straightforward manner.

Clinical psychologist Kore Glied, PhD, associates this trait with what is known as the type C personality — people who tend toward conflict avoidance and people pleasing.

“For some people, being more direct is really difficult, especially if they’ve grown up in an environment where you don’t address certain subjects or you were expected to only have pleasant conversation.”

Once you start to recognize when you’re using agreement to conceal your real feelings, you can begin to shift toward greater honesty. This may start with small gestures.

“Let’s say you feel indecisive,” says Glied. “Someone asks whether you want pizza or sushi. If your usual reaction is to say you’re fine with either, or ‘Whatever you want,’ just pick one instead. Say what you want.”

That may sound incredibly minor, she adds. But these decisions add up to more assurance as you’re speaking.

And as you get into the habit of telling the truth, it makes it easier for others to know who you really are.

(Not sure what type of communicator you are? See “The 4 Communication Styles” to learn how you can use these communication styles to improve your relationships.)

5) Embrace Awkwardness

Remember what it was like when you first learned to ride a bike? Chances are you weren’t ready for the Tour de France that same day. The same is true when learning to communicate more deeply: It will feel strange at first.

“The intention with caring communication is to be more authentic,” says Mirivel. “For many people, any kind of small change in their habits can feel awkward because it’s new. It might come off as mechanical at first, but the important thing is that you’re trying. Like anything, you get better with practice.”

As you’re learning, keep the following strategies in your back pocket — they will help whenever you want to connect more deeply.

⋅ Ask open-ended questions. Most of us tend to ask questions based on what we expect the answer to be, Mirivel says, and we often prep a response before the other person is done talking.

If that’s you, try cultivating curiosity with fresh questions: “What was the best moment in your day today?” or “Why did you choose to start running instead of another sport? What do you like about it?”

⋅ Begin hard conversations with a soft startup. When you know ahead of time that a discussion will be challenging or involve conflict, start from a place of warmth, Lasater suggests. It’s also wise to ask, “Is now a good time to talk?” That shows respect for your conversation partner from the outset.

⋅ Reveal a little more. It can be tough to open up in conversation, especially if you’re introverted or private. But sharing and oversharing are not the same thing. A more vulnerable conversation does not have to sound like a therapy session; you get to choose which parts of yourself you want to share.

Start by talking about something that brings you joy, Mirivel suggests. For example, “I tried kayaking for the first time and felt like such a newbie, but it was exhilarating,” or “I’ve really gotten into gardening lately, and now I’m obsessed with monstera plants.” That type of sharing inspires others to offer the same, he says.

⋅ Offer a sincere compliment. A friendly comment can resonate through someone’s entire day. Be sincere (people can tell) and be specific. For example, “I appreciated what you said in the meeting about changing the timetable; that was so insightful,” or “What a fantastic print on that shirt! Where did you get it?”

After you’ve gotten in the habit of being a little more curious and vulnerable, you’ll likely find that you don’t need to focus on how to have deeper conversations. Instead, you’ll probably find yourself enjoying all their benefits: more intimacy and integrity, less loneliness and alienation, and a greater sense of satisfaction and community. All of that is worth speaking up for.

A Shortcut to Clear Communication

Nonviolent communication, or NVC, is an approach developed by Marshall Rosenberg, PhD, to help foster connections with others through these steps:

  • Observing instead of evaluating
  • Stating your feelings
  • Expressing your needs
  • Making a request

Adopting a basic sentence framework for NVC can be valuable as you’re learning the approach, says Judith Hanson Lasater, coauthor of What We Say Matters. This is her “training wheels” version:

“When I hear                                       ,

I feel                                       ,

because I need                                       ;

would you be willing to                                        ?”

She offers an example of a sentence one might use after a painful conversation: “When I heard your criticism, I felt hurt, because I need respect; would you be willing to share more about what you meant?”

This is not about avoiding conflict; rather, an NVC approach allows you to engage in it respectfully. “Nonviolent communication doesn’t mean you need to agree with everyone or be positive all the time,” Lasater says. “It’s about listening with a soft heart and establishing that you and others deserve respect and to be heard.”

Learn More

Enhancing your communication skills is essential for building enduring relationships with others. Elevate your ability to connect with others by checking out our collection of resources on healthy communication.

Elizabeth Millard

Elizabeth Millard is a writer, editor, and farmer based in northern Minnesota.

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