Conversations Worth Having: Going Beyond Small Talk

Talk is cheap, but only when it’s disingenuous. You may be a smooth talker, having just the right words to say at the right time. Or you may be like me, a blunt speaker whose explicit remarks are frequently taken as condescending and often  reciprocated by questioning looks. In either case, you are a social animal, casting your net of words to fish for understanding. Unfortunately, you don’t always get the big catch – sometimes all you receive are empty, standardized responses like “I’m  good, thanks.” and “Yea, it’s so freaking cold!”. While small talk is important for group affiliation and speaking with strangers, its superficial nature may not fulfill our need for belonging and acceptance (1,2).

We may have countless conversations in a given day, but how many are significant enough that we remember them the next day? Friends and family are supposed to be our safe haven, but how frequently do we engage in meaningful conversations with them? What often stands in the way are very real fears and some perceived expectations. As someone reaching out, you are vulnerable to betrayal, rejection or judgement. As a person on the other end, you may not have signed up for the emotional baggage and may feel responsible to “save” the person before you. Despite these valid concerns, it is important to realize that healthy relationships are built on self-disclosure, where one reveals personal and intimate information about oneself to another (3). After all, what good are relationships if you are unable to reach out, or be of help, in times of need?

Let’s say your friend found the courage to disclose a personal problem to you . How do you react? Responses may differ drastically, from brushing it off to being overly emotional. The former case does not make you a bad friend – it is emotionally demanding to deal with others’ problems, especially those close to you. However, by reciprocating an intimate disclosure with a superficial disclosure, you are holding up a sign that says “not interested” (3). You need to validate their feeling, be supportive, and be a responsive listener (3). In the latter case, your reaction is based on feelings of sympathy and may simply build on the existing emotional anxiety instead of resolving the issue. You should try to be empathetic by understanding her perspective, communicating it back to her to check for discrepancies, and then acting on the mutual understanding in a helpful way (4).

As a concerned friend, you may also feel the responsibility to help resolve the issue. Here is the truth: you probably don’t have all the answers. By focusing solely on the problem, you may completely forget the person before you. This is especially concerning in the healthcare field, where physicians interrupt their patients within the first few seconds of the interview history to get a detailed diagnosis (5). However, major concerns are missed and patients report lower satisfaction with the physician visit. By becoming preoccupied with the problem, one can begin to define the affected person by the presented issue. In doing so, the complex needs and unique circumstances of an individual may be disregarded,  and the associated implications on well-being may be left unexplored. Hence, the focus should not be on labeling and compartmentalizing a person based on surface perceptions, but rather, first understanding him or her. The critical need to understand a person beyond their immediate problem is further validated by research showing that patient satisfaction is not dependent on complete disclosure of problems but having the opportunity to express oneself (6). Although it is tempting to propose solutions immediately, we really do need to first understand an individual by being active and empathetic listeners. Perhaps the best thing you can do for your friend is be just that  and give her what’s invaluable: your sincere company and compassion.

Although each conversation is a spontaneous act of emotions and thoughts, effective communication is needed to ensure that the magic that comes with raw human expression is not lost. Emotionally charged and difficult conversations are a part of life. Instead of avoiding them, we need to develop the skills to address them appropriately. Many healthcare programs have noted the need for efficient communication skills and have implemented appropriate programs. Health Sciences Communications (HTH SCI 3S03) is one such excellent course that I was fortunate to be able to take. Along with learning some of the effective communication techniques shared in this post, the course provided me with a strangely profound realization – although I have survived two decades of my life, I am just learning to talk.

By Sana Gill


1),. (2014).~In praise of small talk: Research- Linköping University. Retrieved 20 November 2014, from
2),. (2014).~Classics in the History of Psychology — A. H. Maslow (1943) A Theory of Human Motivation. Retrieved 20 November 2014, from
3),. (2014).~Self-Disclosure and Interpersonal Communication. Retrieved 20 November 2014, from
4) Parkin T, de Looy A, Farrand P. Greater professional empathy leads to higher agreement about decisions made in the consultation. Patient education and counseling. 2014
5) Beckman, H. B., & Frankel, R. M. (1984). The effect of physician behavior on the collection of data. [Research Support, Non-U S Gov’t
Research Support, U S Gov’t, P H S]. Ann Intern Med, 101(5), 692-696.
6)  Robinson J, Heritage J. Physicians’ opening questions and patients’ satisfaction. Patient education and counseling. 2006;60(3):279–285.

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