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.

Reply

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When you can’t cut out (their worries), add in (what they need for felt safety). 

Rather than focusing on what we need them to do, shift the focus to what we can do. Make the environment as safe as we can (add in another safe adult), and have so much certainty that they can do this, they can borrow what they need and wrap it around themselves again and again and again.

You already do this when they have to do things that don’t want to do, but which you know are important - brushing their teeth, going to the dentist, not eating ice cream for dinner (too often). The key for living bravely is to also recognise that so many of the things that drive anxiety are equally important. 

We also need to ask, as their important adults - ‘Is this scary safe or scary dangerous?’ ‘Do I move them forward into this or protect them from it?’♥️
The need to feel connected to, and seen by our people is instinctive. 

THE FIX: Add in micro-connections to let them feel you seeing them, loving them, connecting with them, enjoying them:

‘I love being your mum.’
‘I love being your dad.’
‘I missed you today.’
‘I can’t wait to hang out with you at bedtime 
and read a story together.’

Or smiling at them, playing with them, 
sharing something funny, noticing something about them, ‘remembering when...’ with them.

And our adult loves need the same, as we need the same from them.♥️
Our kids need the same thing we do: to feel safe and loved through all feelings not just the convenient ones.

Gosh it’s hard though. I’ve never lost my (thinking) mind as much at anyone as I have with the people I love most in this world.

We’re human, not bricks, and even though we’re parents we still feel it big sometimes. Sometimes these feelings make it hard for us to be the people we want to be for our loves.

That’s the truth of it, and that’s the duality of being a parent. We love and we fury. We want to connect and we want to pull away. We hold it all together and sometimes we can’t.

None of this is about perfection. It’s about being human, and the best humans feel, argue, fight, reconnect, own our ‘stuff’. We keep working on growing and being more of our everythingness, just in kinder ways.

If we get it wrong, which we will, that’s okay. What’s important is the repair - as soon as we can and not selling it as their fault. Our reaction is our responsibility, not theirs. This might sound like, ‘I’m really sorry I yelled. You didn’t deserve that. I really want to hear what you have to say. Can we try again?’

Of course, none of this means ‘no boundaries’. What it means is adding warmth to the boundary. One without the other will feel unsafe - for them, us, and others.

This means making sure that we’ve claimed responsibility- the ability to respond to what’s happening. It doesn’t mean blame. It means recognising that when a young person is feeling big, they don’t have the resources to lead out of the turmoil, so we have to lead them out - not push them out.

Rather than focusing on what we want them to do, shift the focus to what we can do to bring felt safety and calm back into the space.

THEN when they’re calm talk about what’s happened, the repair, and what to do next time.

Discipline means ‘to teach’, not to punish. They will learn best when they are connected to you. Maybe there is a need for consequences, but these must be about repair and restoration. Punishment is pointless, harmful, and outdated.

Hold the boundary, add warmth. Don’t ask them to do WHEN they can’t do. Wait until they can hear you and work on what’s needed. There’s no hurry.♥️
Recently I chatted with @rebeccasparrow72 , host of ABC Listen’s brilliant podcast, ‘Parental as Anything: Teens’. I loved this chat. Bec asked all the questions that let us crack the topic right open. Our conversation was in response to a listener’s question, that I expect will be familiar to many parents in many homes. Have a listen here:
https://www.abc.net.au/listen/programs/parental-as-anything-with-maggie-dent/how-can-i-help-my-anxious-teen/104035562
School refusal is escalating. Something that’s troubling me is the use of the word ‘school can’t’ when talking about kids.

Stay with me.

First, let’s be clear: school refusal isn’t about won’t. It’s about can’t. Not truly can’t but felt can’t. It’s about anxiety making school feel so unsafe for a child, avoidance feels like the only option.

Here’s the problem. Language is powerful, and when we put ‘can’t’ onto a child, it tells a deficiency story about the child.

But school refusal isn’t about the child.
It’s about the environment not feeling safe enough right now, or separation from a parent not feeling safe enough right now. The ‘can’t’ isn’t about the child. It’s about an environment that can’t support the need for felt safety - yet.

This can happen in even the most loving, supportive schools. All schools are full of anxiety triggers. They need to be because anything new, hard, brave, growthful will always come with potential threats - maybe failure, judgement, shame. Even if these are so unlikely, the brain won’t care. All it will read is ‘danger’.

Of course sometimes school actually isn’t safe. Maybe peer relationships are tricky. Maybe teachers are shouty and still using outdated ways to manage behaviour. Maybe sensory needs aren’t met.

Most of the time though it’s not actual threat but ’felt threat’.

The deficiency isn’t with the child. It’s with the environment. The question isn’t how do we get rid of their anxiety. It’s how do we make the environment feel safe enough so they can feel supported enough to handle the discomfort of their anxiety.

We can throw all the resources we want at the child, but:

- if the parent doesn’t believe the child is safe enough, cared for enough, capable enough; or

- if school can’t provide enough felt safety for the child (sensory accommodations, safe peer relationships, at least one predictable adult the child feels safe with and cared for by),

that child will not feel safe enough.

To help kids feel safe and happy at school, we have to recognise that it’s the environment that needs changing, not the child. This doesn’t mean the environment is wrong. It’s about making it feel more right for this child.♥️

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