A Real Conversation – or Falling in Love – in 36 Questions or Less

A conversation and falling in love. Sometimes they start same. Small talk is fine to a point, but there’s one thing that sparks a connection more than any another – mutual vulnerability, powered by self-disclosure. This is where the real magic happens. 

A number of studies have shown that to move a conversation from the surface to a little bit more, mutual vulnerability is key. This calls for conversation that’s a little bit bolder and a little bit braver, but they are always the conversations that are exquisite to be a part of. 

Nobody is suggesting that hearts and souls be put on the line in the name of intoxicating conversation, but intelligent, interesting conversation, with a little bit more of someone brave enough to go there, is impossible to walk away from. It’s charming, fascinating, energetic and so are the people involved. At least that’s how they will be seen and remembered. 

There is an abundance of research that has looked at the way people develop intimacy. 

Professor of Psychology Arthur Aron, has done extensive work in the area. According to his research, intimacy is critical to a relationship because it not only grows the relationship, but also the people in it. 

When two people begin a relationship, each begins to ‘include the other in the self’. By opening up to another person’s beliefs, feelings, ideology, resources and personality, the unique parts of another is added to the already defined parts of the self, and the self expands. 

The process of self-expansion typically happens through time spent together, sharing activities, ideas and interests. 

The more two people share in a novel and challenging activity, the greater the feeling of closeness. Conversation – the right conversation – can be as novel and challenging as anything.

The keys to establishing a real connection. 

A key feature in the development of close relationships is dropping the defensive guard. As explained by Professor Aron and colleagues,

‘One key pattern associated with the development of a close relationship among peers is sustained, escalating, reciprocal, personal self-disclosure.’

Self-disclosure facilitates a number of important aspects that have been established as important to building intimacy:

  • It communicates vulnerability. When the defensive shell is dropped, the extraordinary happens. It’s just the way it is.
  • It extends kindness and warmth – two qualities that have been consistently reported by people as the qualities that attracted them to someone. 
  • It has at its core an assumption that the other person will be accepting. This is an important one. Expecting that people will like you (with humility, not arrogance) will in itself generate warmth and openness. If you don’t actually feel it, fake it. Acting as though you assume you will be accepted and liked will ensure you come across as warm, open, interested and interesting. Don’t go too far though – nobody likes arrogance – but if you’re faking it, there’s no chance of that.

In a fascinating study, Professor Aron attempted to escalate the intimacy between strangers. He paired participants and gave each couple a series of 36 questions to discuss, designed to facilitate self-disclosure. The questions escalated in intensity, based on the finding that one of the keys to establishing a close relationships is self-disclosure that is sustained, escalating and mutual. 

Results revealed that participants rated their relationship with their partners of less than an hour to be about as close as the average relationship in their lives and in other people’s lives.

The effects of the 45 minutes self-disclosure activity (involving the questions below) lasted beyond the study, with many participants maintaining some sort of  relationship with the person they had been paired up in the study. That there was a carry over that lasted beyond the study indicates the power of self-disclosure.

The self-disclosure questions create the spark and ground to build on. The key elements of a successful relationship – loyalty, commitment, dependability, come with subsequent work and mutual effort to progress the relationship.

36 Questions that Will Spark a A Real Connection

Now to the best part. Here is the list of questions developed by Professor Aron and colleagues to accelerate intimacy between strangers. They’re fascinating, interesting and communicate a curiosity that would feel quite extraordinary to be on the other side of – and difficult to walk away from. And isn’t this where every ‘something wonderful’ starts?

Try them out with someone you’re already a fan of, or somebody you might like to be a fan of you. 

They escalate in intensity of self-disclosure but you don’t have to start at the start. Where you begin will depend on the context of your relationship and the conversation you’re having, so start wherever feels right.

Remember it’s not an interview, so don’t keep charging out questions one after the other. You want to come across as interested, interesting and charming – not robotic and intense. Or weird.

They’re just ideas and the disclosure has to be mutual. Start by being interested enough (and perhaps brave enough) to ask the questions, then be open enough, warm enough and engaged enough to share your own response. Above all else, have fun with it. 

Just a quick note: In the following question, ‘partner’ means to the person you are talking to.

Ready? Here we go …

  1. Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
  2. Would you like to be famous? In what way?
  3. Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why?
  4. What would constitute a ‘perfect’ day for you?
  5. When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?
  6. If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year-old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you want?
  7. Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?
  8. Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common.
  9. For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
  10. If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
  11. Take four minutes and tell your partner your life story in as much detail as possible.
  12. If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?
  13. If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future or anything else, what would you want to know?
  14. Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
  15. What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
  16. What do you value most in a friendship?
  17. What is your most treasured memory?
  18. What is your most terrible memory?
  19. If you knew that in one year you would die suddenly, would you change anything about the way you are now living? Why?
  20. What does friendship mean to you?
  21. What roles do love and affection play in your life?
  22. Share something you consider a positive characteristic of your partner. (In the study, partners were asked to take turns with this, sharing a total of five items they considered a positive characteristic of each other.)
  23. How close and warm is your family? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other people’s?
  24. How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?
  25. Make three true ‘we’ statements each. For instance, ‘We are both in this room feeling …’
  26. Complete this sentence: ‘I wish I had someone with whom I could share … ‘
  27. If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, what would be important for him or her to know.
  28. Tell your partner what you like about them; be very honest this time, saying things that you might not say to someone you’ve just met.
  29. Share with your partner an embarrassing moment in your life.
  30. When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?
  31. Tell your partner something that you like about them already.
  32. What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?
  33. If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t you told them yet?
  34. 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?
  35. Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?
  36. Share a personal problem and ask your partner’s advice on how he or she might handle it. Also, ask your partner to reflect back to you how you seem to be feeling about the problem you have chosen.

Humans are wired to connect. The need is a primal one. Picking up on this pulse in another person is the way to move to something bigger. Have the conversation with a sense of fun in mind and you’ll come across as warm, open, curious, bold and charming. You won’t be able to help it. 

2 Comments

Adam G

My wife and I have been thinking about enhancing our relationship so that it is more fun. Thanks for your tips about how we should try to be more vulnerable, kind, and warm with each other. Being able to communicate more effectively in every aspect of our relationship could help us treat each other better.

Reply
Laurel Von Syda

Wonderful and the truth. Being real involves exposing ourselves and reciprocal vulnerability.
I loved the advice of sharing with the thought of being accepted.
Anything less is false and will never
evolve beyond superficial.

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We teach our kids to respect adults and other children, and they should – respect is an important part of growing up to be a pretty great human. There’s something else though that’s even more important – teaching them to respect themselves first. 

We can’t stop difficult people coming into their lives. They might be teachers, coaches, peers, and eventually, colleagues, or perhaps people connected to the people who love them. What we can do though is give our kids independence of mind and permission to recognise that person and their behaviour as unacceptable to them. We can teach our kids that being kind and respectful doesn’t necessarily mean accepting someone’s behaviour, beliefs or influence. 

The kindness and respect we teach our children to show to others should never be used against them by those broken others who might do harm. We have to recognise as adults that the words and attitudes directed to our children can be just as damaging as anything physical. 

If the behaviour is from an adult, it’s up to us to guard our child’s safe space in the world even harder. That might be by withdrawing support for the adult, using our own voice with the adult to elevate our child’s, asking our child what they need and how we can help, helping them find their voice, withdrawing them from the environment. 

Of course there will be times our children do or say things that aren’t okay, but this never makes it okay for any adult in your child’s life to treat them in a way that leads them to feeling ‘less than’.

Sometimes the difficult person will be a peer. There is no ‘one certain way’ to deal with this. Sometimes it will involve mediation, role playing responses, clarifying the other child’s behaviour, asking for support from other adults in the environment, or letting go of the friendship.

Learning that it’s okay to let go of relationships is such an important part of full living. Too often we hold on to people who don’t deserve us. Not everyone who comes into our lives is meant to stay and if we can help our children start to think about this when they’re young, they’ll be so much more empowered and deliberate in their relationships when they’re older.♥️
When we are angry, there will always be another emotion underneath it. It is this way for all of us. 

Anger itself is a valid emotion so it’s important not to dismiss it. Emotion is e-motion - energy in motion. It has to find a way out, which is why telling an angry child to calm down or to keep their bodies still will only make things worse for them. They might comply, but their bodies will still be in a state of distress. 

Often, beneath an angry child is an anxious one needing our help. It’s the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. As with all emotions, anger has a job to do - to help us to safety through movement, or to recruit support, or to give us the physical resources to meet a need or to change something that needs changing. It doesn’t mean it does the job well, because an angry brain means the feeling brain has the baton, while the thinking brain sits out for a while. What it means is that there is a valid need there and this young person is doing their very best to meet it, given their available resources in the moment or their developmental stage. 

Children need the same thing we all need when we’re feeling fierce - to be seen,  heard, and supported; to find a way to get the energy out, either with words or movement. Not to be shut down or ‘fixed’. 

Our job isn’t to stop their anger, but to help them find ways to feel it and express it in ways that don’t do damage. This will take lots of experience, and lots of time - and that’s okay.♥️
The SCCR Online Conference 2021 is a wonderful initiative by @sccrcentre (Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution) which will explore ’The Power of Reconnection’. I’ve been working with SCCR for many years. They do incredible work to build relationships between young people and the important adults around them, and I’m excited to be working with them again as part of this conference.

More than ever, relationships matter. They heal, provide a buffer against stress, and make the world feel a little softer and safer for our young people. Building meaningful connections can take time, and even the strongest relationships can feel the effects of disconnection from time to time. As part of this free webinar, I’ll be talking about the power of attachment relationships, and ways to build relationships with the children and teens in your life that protect, strengthen, and heal. 

The workshop will be on Monday 11 October at 7pm Brisbane, Australia time (10am Scotland time). The link to register is in my story.
There are many things that can send a nervous system into distress. These can include physiological (tired, hungry, unwell), sensory overload/ underload, real or perceived threat (anxiety), stressed resources (having to share, pay attention, learn new things, putting a lid on what they really think or want - the things that can send any of us to the end of ourselves).

Most of the time it’s developmental - the grown up brain is being built and still has a way to go. Like all beautiful, strong, important things, brains take time to build. The part of the brain that has a heavy hand in regulation launches into its big developmental window when kids are about 6 years old. It won’t be fully done developing until mid-late 20s. This is a great thing - it means we have a wide window of influence, and there is no hurry.

Like any building work, on the way to completion things will get messy sometimes - and that’s okay. It’s not a reflection of your young one and it’s not a reflection of your parenting. It’s a reflection of a brain in the midst of a build. It’s wondrous and fascinating and frustrating and maddening - it’s all the things.

The messy times are part of their development, not glitches in it. They are how it’s meant to be. They are important opportunities for us to influence their growth. It’s just how it happens. We have to be careful not to judge our children or ourselves because of these messy times, or let the judgement of others fill the space where love, curiosity, and gentle guidance should be. For sure, some days this will be easy, and some days it will feel harder - like splitting an atom with an axe kind of hard.

Their growth will always be best nurtured in the calm, loving space beside us. It won’t happen through punishment, ever. Consequences have a place if they make sense and are delivered in a way that doesn’t shame or separate them from us, either physically or emotionally. The best ‘consequence’ is the conversation with you in a space that is held by your warm loving strong presence, in a way that makes it safe for both of you to be curious, explore options, and understand what happened.♥️
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#mindfulparenting #positiveparenting #parenting
When children are struggling to physically control their bodies, we support them in ways that strengthen. If they’re struggling to write, for example, we don’t punish or shame them. We guide them and show them by doing ‘with’. We also lift them up, ‘I know you can do this. Keep going. You’re getting better and better.’ We also don’t wait for perfection. ‘You wrote a number 4! Nice work you!’ We sit with and do with, over and over. We also give them a break when they get frustrated or upset.

It’s the same for behaviour. Big behaviour comes from big feelings or attempts to meet valid needs. (And all needs are valid.) It is this way for all of us. When we’re upset or angry, the last thing we need is for someone to tell us we can’t be, or to lecture or shame us. Kids are the same.

With kids and teens though, there can be a sense that we need to ‘do’ something in response to big behaviour, so we lay down punishments or consequences with a view to teaching a lesson.

But - unless the consequences make sense (punishments never do), they risk teaching lessons we don’t want them to learn:
- that the environment is fragile and won’t tolerate mistakes. 
- that secrecy and lies are a safer option than coming to us. 
- shut down. They put a lid on expressing big feelings. The feelings will still be there, but they aren’t getting the vital guidance from us on how to calm them (through co-regulation). The risk is that they will eventually call on unhealthy ways to calm the fierce stress neurobiology that comes with big feelings.

Consequences have to make sense. Maybe it’s to repair or reconnect. Discipline has to teach. It’s not about what we do to them but about what we nurture within them. Is that trust and the capacity to learn and grow? Or is it fear or shame.

Often the only response that’s needed is a loving conversation with us. ‘What happened?’ ‘What were you hoping would happen?’ ‘What did you need that you didn’t get?’ What can you do differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right?’ Because if discipline is about learning, the most powerful consequence is the strong, loving conversation with us that lights their way and speaks softly to the safety of us.♥️

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