Study: Doing this is key to keeping people engaged in conversation

BOSTON — If you’re a psychologist, this might be extra-exciting for you to read. A series of studies discovered that the most effective way to stimulate others in conversation is not by sharing new knowledge or experiences, but rather by telling the listener things they already know or are familiar with.

“Conversation is the most common of all human social activities, and doing it well requires that we know what our conversation partners most want to hear,” psychological scientist Daniel T. Gilbert of Harvard University says in a release. “Speakers think listeners will most enjoy hearing stories about experiences that the listeners have not themselves had, but our studies suggest that speakers are wrong.”

Researchers at Harvard and the University of Virginia conducted four related studies for their paper. The studies emanated from their anecdotal observations that conversations covering unrelatable topics often made the interlocutor feel “bored, confused, and underwhelmed.”

First, the authors measured conversational interest by putting participants into groups of three. One individual was to act as a speaker, while the other two were listeners. All of the speakers and some of the listeners would watch a video that the speaker would then describe. 

Contrary to the speakers’ expectations, the listeners were much more receptive to and engaged with the message conveyed by the speaker if they’d already seen the video.

People more engaged in conversation when they’re already informed

Even more captivating was a second study, which showed that listeners expected to be more engaged if they knew nothing of the coming story. Yet, in fact, the previously-examined phenomenon happened again: listeners hearing information that they already knew resulted in better engagement. Two additional studies would examine why this was the case. Researchers arrived at the conclusion that familiar stories were easier to understand, thus allowing the listener to further comprehend and ruminate over the information.

Co-author Daniel T. Gilbert attributes the preference for being told familiar stories to average people being “fairly awful storytellers who leave out a lot of important information.”

Since “most of us can’t” properly describe what we see accurately says Gilbert, “our friends are actually a whole lot happier when we tell them what they already know because at least they understand what we’re talking about. We worry too much about thrilling our listeners and not enough about confusing them.” 

The results of the studies are published in the journal Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.