How to Have Meaningful Conversations on Video Calls, According to a Professional ‘Conversation Designer’

Photo: Getty Images/Martin DM

Small talk has taken on a brand-new meaning in the time of quarantine because rather than focusing on innocuous and benign goings-on, like, say, the weather, our easy ties for connecting have become super-intense given that they generally relate to the pandemic. While hashing out the latest morbid stats over Zoom doesn't exactly make for breezy repartee, it has become the new norm in this "infodemic." Being able to talk through the news with the people you love and trust can certainly be useful, but you may also be in need of some tips for how to have meaningful conversations with those whom you'd normally just share small talk. That's where professional conversation designer Daniel Stillman can help.

Stillman, author of Good Talk: How to Design Conversations That Matter, stumbled into his career path of fostering big (rather than small) talk out of a love for knowing how to have meaningful conversations. But, uh, what exactly does he do? "Conversation design, for me, is the recognition that human conversations are worth designing," he says. "Design implies a designer—a shape we're trying to create and a material we're designing with. With conversations, the material is really poorly understood by most of us, so my work right now is to get people to see what they're shaping every day: conversations."

"Conversation design, for me, is the recognition that human conversations are worth designing." —Daniel Stillman, conversation designer

And right now, he says, having meaningful conversations is more important than ever. It's a well-loved psychological fact that people need social connections to thrive. Specifically, research has indicated that the most profound human bonds are created from mutual understanding, perceived trustworthiness, active listening, and a dash of humor.

But this recipe for seamless meaningful catch-ups with your buds isn't so easy to replicate virtually via FaceTime or (ugh) Zoom because of the psychological phenomenon of the presence of absence. It's not impossible, though, and Stillman has six tips for designing talk between friends and family that'll leave you feeling socially satisfied instead of drained.

How to have meaningful conversations on video chat, courtesy of a professional conversationalist.

1. Make sure your setup is solid

"Do a mic check first, like at any event," says Stillman. Ask yourself, "'Do we both have good audio and video?' If things get fuzzy or broken, develop a hand signal to let people know things are broken. I make a large 'T' to communicate 'we've got a technical difficulty!'" he says.

This may seem like a small detail, but just think about how alienating it feels when you're in the middle of sharing a thought, only to be interrupted by a co-worker or friend yell, "You're breaking up!" at their microphone.

2. Share the conversation's subject before the chat takes place

Hopping on impromptu video calls can be nerve-racking—whether they're organized by your mom or your manager. That's why Stillman is a huge fan of giving everyone the TL;DR beforehand so that there are no (bad) surprises. "Share what I call the 'open-explore-close' arc. Even if you don't have a formal agenda, share where you think you are in the conversation, what you want to explore together—and what you don't—and what you want to 'get to' at the end. Getting that clear will give you a firm foundation for the rest of the conversation," he says.

If you're catching up with friend, shoot them a text beforehand that says something like: "I feel like I haven't heard about how your running progress is coming along! I'd love to know what your training is like, so we can pick a day when this is all over to run a few miles together!" That way, they're already pumped to tell you about their wild experiences of being a newbie runner at the start of the conversation, rather than going through the motions to reach a topic to discuss.

3. Turn off your video self-view

"On Zoom, you can do this by finding the little three-dot menu over your video," says Stillman. "Everyone else will be able to see you, but you won't have to keep checking in on how you look. It's an unnecessary and draining distraction, so you'll have more energy to focus on everyone else." After all, you don't look at a thumbnail of your reflection during real-life conversations, so why do you need to see yourself in virtual chats?

4. SKip speaker view

Stillman isn't a huge fan of speaker view, because it changes too fast for you to notice the body language of any single person. Instead, identify the person who's contributing to the conversation the most (perhaps the meeting presenter at work), and try "pinning" them to your screen and focusing solely on their gestures and mannerisms. You'll instantly feel more connected.

5. There's no need to scream

Is your voice killing you from over-projecting during your video calls? If so, work on speaking at a normal volume. "Video screens make us 'prop ourselves up' and talk a little more formally, so relax and speak naturally," says Stillman.

If you notice yourself manipulating your vocal cords or trying to make your expression seem cool, calm, and collected, stop all of that. Vulnerable conversations are a product of being real with people, so make goofy faces, raise your eyebrows, and just be yourself.

6. Give the people something to see

When you can help it, situating yourself in front of a window view or your apartment's indoor garden can be a nice treat for whomever you're speaking with. It may also get the conversation going: "What herbs are you growing?! OMG, the sunsets there are gorgeous?"

And if you, like me, have been working in a closet without many other viable options, consider getting a succulent or some other desk plant. You know, to get the conversation going and also boost your mood by bringing nature indoors.

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