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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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