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Wellness Challenge: How to Skip Small Talk and Deepen Connections

What was your role in the school play? Your most embarrassing moment? What superpower would you want? For today’s challenge, find a friend or partner and ask a connection question. Science tells us that when you skip the small talk and instead reveal something about yourself, you form deeper ties to the person you’re talking to, whether it’s a friend, family member or romantic partner. Pick a question (more options are below) and get talking!

The pandemic has strengthened some relationships and fractured others. Many people say they’ve forgotten how to talk to people and find the idea of socializing again to be daunting. Fortunately, relationship researchers have studied the best way for humans to forge deeper connections.

A number of studies show that when we reveal our opinions and feelings rather than just basic facts about our lives, we’re more likely to build close relationships. Self-disclosure is the concept behind a study called “The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness,” led by Arthur Aron, a scientist at State University of New York at Stony Brook. Dr. Aron’s goal was to create closeness between two strangers in a laboratory setting for research purposes.

Knowing that self-disclosure fosters closeness, Dr. Aron and his colleagues theorized that they could accelerate the process of getting closer by getting strangers to talk for 45 minutes about a series of personal questions, each more revealing than the last. They called it, “sustained, escalating, reciprocal, personal self-disclosure.” (They soon learned that their questionnaire had a lasting effect after reports of ongoing closeness between the pairs in the study — including one couple who got married.)

“The questions were designed to get increasingly revealing,” said Dr. Aron. “We also throw in items where you let the other person know you like them. That turns out to be a very important thing in establishing closeness.”

Although the questions became known as the 36 questions that lead to love, Dr. Aron points out that the goal of the questions is not to spur romance. Most of the time, the questions will help strangers to become friends, friends to become closer and romantic partners to feel more connected.

“One of the main reasons self-disclosure is a good thing for friendships or romantic relationships is that it gives the other person the opportunity to be responsive,” said Dr. Aron. Asking and answering the questions lets you know “they understand, and they hear, and they value what you’re feeling.”

The questions are broken up into three sets. The early questions help people get comfortable with each other, and the later questions are more probing. You can pick one question or choose a few from each set. Here are some of the questions from the study. You can find the complete list here.

1. Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?

2. What would constitute a “perfect” day for you?

3. What are three things you and the person you’re talking to appear to have in common.

4. If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?

5. Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?

6. What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?

7. What is your most treasured memory?

8. Alternate sharing something you consider a positive characteristic of your conversation partner. Share a total of five items.

9. Make three true “we” statements about yourself and the person you’re talking to. For instance, you could finish this sentence. “We are both in this room feeling … ”

10. Share with your friend or partner an embarrassing moment in your life.

11. Your house, containing everything you own, catches fire. After saving your loved ones and pets, you have time to safely make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be? Why?

12. Share a personal problem and ask your friend or partner’s advice on how he or she might handle it. Ask them to reflect back to you how you seem to be feeling about the problem you have chosen.

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