Virtual hangouts falling flat? Here are 7 ways to strike up deeper conversations

Coronavirus may be getting you down, but a really good conversation can lift you up. Give it a try with these expert tips.
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By Jen Laskey

About a month into “social distancing,” and the novelty of virtual happy hours and free online yoga classes is wearing thin. Self-isolation is tough — even when it’s for a good reason, like protecting yourself and your family from the coronavirus. “We’re social creatures, we’re hardwired for connection,” says Fonta Hadley, a behavioral researcher, listening teacher and the founder of Eloquence, a communication training studio in San Francisco. “Self-isolation goes against our instincts. We have to do it to try to stay safe, but it’s counterintuitive.”

While immersing oneself in solitude for a period of time can be a positive experience, it’s also one that leads to feelings of loneliness, anxiety and depression. More drastically, it can increase our risk of premature death, according to a 2019 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology. The negative effects associated with isolation are exactly why it’s used as a punishment. “Children get timeouts,” Hadley points out. “And in prison, adults get solitary confinement.”

Evienia Vassiliadou, a licensed marriage and family therapist based in New York City, has been conducting teletherapy sessions for more than two years. Since the coronavirus lockdown, she’s observed that “for introverts and people who tend toward depression or who live alone, [the isolation] is excruciating.” For some, she says, “it’s a completely new level of feeling alone.”

For the time being, physical distancing is still in full swing in many places around the world, which means the bulk of our socializing is going to continue to take place over the phone or online — for a while. But just because you’re cooped up at home and not much is changing in your personal life from one day to the next (other than that you might be sinking deeper into boredom), it doesn’t mean you can’t try to breathe some more life into those virtual hangouts.

Here are seven ways to tamp down the small talk and strike up more meaningful conversations while self-isolating.

Create a list of people you want to reach out to

The list might include your parents, siblings, children who don’t live with you, in-laws, or other family members, friends, former teachers or mentors, a neighbor, or a blast from the past who recently popped up in your social networks.

Make time

Getting into a deep conversation isn’t something you can do quickly, says Hadley. “It takes time.” Most people have at least a little more time on their hands than usual right now (and some have a lot). “What I’ve been telling people to do,” she says, “is take the same amount of time each day that they would’ve been commuting, and use it to connect with people.”

Make the call

Studies suggest that the human voice can trigger the body to release the feel-good hormone oxytocin and reduce the stress-inducing hormone cortisol. With the coronavirus pandemic, the old phone call has been making a comeback, as the New York Times recently reported, and use of video conferencing sites and apps like Zoom, Facebook Messenger and Google Hangouts has been skyrocketing. You can’t go wrong with either, but Vassiliadou points out that video calls allow you to see each other’s facial expressions, body language and surroundings. “You have much more immediacy,” she says, “and the conversation feels more intimate.”

Get the conversation started

“It’s not the first thing you say that’s really important,” says Hadley. “It’s the second thing.” She advises listening to what the other person says back to you, and then responding in a way that not only shows you’re listening but that steers the conversation in a meaningful direction. "It can be as simple as saying, 'That’s interesting, tell me more about that.' If what they talk about isn’t very interesting, suggest some other things to talk about. Ask them questions to dig deeper. Ask them about an experience they learned something about that they weren’t expecting to learn.”

Get creative

If the conversation gets stuck, says Hadley, tell them something you appreciate about them, or why you’re proud of them, or simply thank them for being in your life, or remind them you love them. Ask them about a favorite memory or a moment that made them feel proud. If you’re video chatting, ask about something you see in the background — a photo, piece of art or a tchotchke. Then follow that up with a question about where it came from, why they were attracted to it, what it means to them. Find out what they’re doing to keep their minds busy, if they’ve taken up a new hobby, if they’re reading a good book, listening to an interesting podcast or binge-watching a fun show. Ask them to tell you something about themselves that most people don’t know (or would be surprised to know).

Really listen

The act of listening and truly feeling that you’re being listened to can be transformational, says Hadley. “When someone feels the same way we do, it helps us feel less lonely.” She points out that even if you don’t normally have a lot in common with the person you’re talking to, we’re all going through the shared experience of a global pandemic. Ask about how being stuck at home makes them feel, what they miss about life B.C. (before coronavirus), or bring up a story you saw in the news that moved, inspired or distressed you.

Put it all out there

Even though most people who contract COVID-19 are expected to recover, “suddenly being faced with possible mortality can create a lot of clarity,” says Hadley. The lockdown can be an opportunity to really think about what you want to say to a particular person before you (hypothetically) die — or before they do. “Say it, right now,” she says, “while you both have this extra time to talk about it.”

Hope for the best, but be prepared

Vassiliadou agrees that it’s good to have these conversations. “All of us are hoping for a bit more depth and meaning,” she says. But even though we’re all suddenly dealing with life and death matters, it doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone will be receptive. “Just because you’re ready,” she says, “unfortunately, that doesn’t mean we’re all at the same level of readiness.”

People are grappling with the effects of the pandemic in different ways. “At this point,” says Vassiliadou, “we all have good and bad days.” So if meaningful conversation is not automatically happening or if it isn’t received well — or if someone you contacted out of the blue never responds, try not to take it too personally. “There’s nothing logical about what’s happening right now,” she says, and besides, “you have no idea if they’re working 16-hour shifts or if someone in their family is sick or has died.”

And some people also just get stuck in their ways. Meaningful conversations may not be at the top of their self-care list. “It’s a personal thing.” she says. “You may have to accept that that’s what you have with this person and find meaning elsewhere.”

But regardless of how the conversation goes, says Hadley, “it’s important to remember that just being with someone — even if it’s over the phone or computer — is a gift you can give them.”