Ask almost anyone and they’ll tell you — it’s way more rewarding to get into a deep conversation with someone than to make small talk. Why, then, do we so often settle for surface banter over something more meaningful and substantive?
That’s what researchers at the University of Chicago wanted to know, so they designed an experiment in which they studied 1,800 volunteers who were paired off with different “conversation partners.” Through a series of before-and-after questions issued to the participants, the researchers determined that there are two main reasons why we shy away from deeper, more meaningful exchanges.
One is that we don’t think other people will be all that interested in what we think and have to say, and the second reason is we think it will be hard and awkward to get there. The researchers concluded that neither of the assumptions, about how interested people will be (in us) or how hard it will be, are necessarily true.
It seems that’s one of the things we do is we tend to underestimate some things, such as our own worth and value, while overestimating other things, like how hard it’s going to be, whatever “it” is.
Regarding the first part — the miscalculation of our worth — John Lennon would probably say that it comes from our early education. (I’m thinking here of his song “Working Class Hero,” with the lyric, “As soon as you’re born, they make you feel small.” As for the second part and how hard it’s going to be, I know — having studied physics — that the hard part is at the beginning, when things are at a standstill, but once you get going, resistance lessens, momentum kicks in and it gets easier to supply the necessary effort to achieve or complete your task.
I hear this same sort of thing described to me by sponsors and sometime-attendees of our community concert series. One guy told me, “6:30 is the moment of truth; if I can get off the couch and make it to the concert then I know I’m going to have a great time; it’s just a matter of whether or not I can muster up enough energy to get off the couch.”
Gurdjieff spoke of imagination, and he didn’t use or mean it in a good way, not in the way that Einstein did when he said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” or like Muhammad Ali, who said, “The man (person) who has no imagination has no wings”; he meant that our imagination too often gets the better of us, and we waste an overabundance of energy worrying and “imagining” how hard things will be.
Researchers also found that if you share something meaningful and important, you are likely to get something meaningful and important back in return, leading to considerably better discussions, conversations and exchanges. They attribute this to our sense of social reciprocity, which holds that kindness and cooperation breed further kindness and cooperation — same with hostility and malevolence.
The takeaway for me is a reminder to: Go for something greater, something bold; shun timidity; extend, apply and give of yourself, with the aim of enjoying deeper, more meaningful exchanges and more lively interaction, knowing that it isn't that hard, people will be receptive to it, and that it will be more fulfilling, for both you and others.
As is often the case, it’s a matter of awareness (self-awareness), of not overestimating our importance, power and abilities but, also, not underestimating them either.
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