Connection. It's something we as humans crave. And for good reason: research tells us that people who have high-quality, long-term relationships enjoy better emotional well-being, physical health and longer lives.
But, in today's age of constant distractions, how can you make the most of the time you are actually spending with others to forge even deeper, more substantive connections?
A fascinating study by Arthur Aron and colleagues provides us with a scientifically tested way to achieve this goal of building intimacy with others. And in this particular study, connections were deepened in a mere 45 minutes!
The study paired strangers and gave them a list of 36 questions that they were all to take turns answering. The questions were designed to increase steadily in terms of the degree of personal disclosure they required from study participants. So they ranged from: "Who would you want as an ideal dinner guest?" to "Share a personal problem and ask your partner's advice on how he or she might handle it."
Researchers found that after going through this 45-minute exercise, the study participants reported feeling significantly closer to their partners. In fact, they rated their relationship to their partners to be about as close as the average relationship in their lives (which is pretty amazing, considering they were strangers less than an hour prior). This effect held true even if the participants disagreed about issues that were of great importance in their lives.
Interestingly, in a recent New York Times piece, one woman who went through the exercise declared that this process resulted in an eventual romantic relationship between her and her partner. The study researchers also reported that in certain cases, marriages had resulted from the exercise.
Now, unless you want to pull out a list of 36 questions wherever you go, you're probably wondering how can you apply these findings to your own life. Although memorizing a few might not be such a bad idea for conversation starters, here are a few tips to build deep (and quick) connections, all based on scientifically proven wisdom!
1. Share personal information.
The researchers found that just spending time together engaging in small talk did not increase a sense of closeness. Instead, the most important factor in this experiment was that people were willing to disclose personal information about themselves. (Research has also shown that the simple act of sharing an important life secret with someone else increases your naturally occurring levels of oxytocin (the bonding hormone). So, if you want to enjoy deeper relationships, be willing to make yourself a bit vulnerable.
2. Emphasize reciprocity.
To build a connection, both or all parties involved must take part. Have you ever watched a dating show in which the guy spent the whole time dominating the conversation talking about himself? And furthermore, are you at all surprised when during the debrief of the date, his date declares that she didn't enjoy the experience? If you enjoy talking about yourself, realize that while the other person may be learning a whole lot about you, they may not be feeling a deep connection with you. There needs to be conversational give-and-take for this to work.
3. If you're an introvert, set the intention of building closeness.
In the study, when extroverts were paired with one another, they became closer. However, when introverts were paired, they only reported a closer relationship when they were explicitly instructed to use the task to get closer to their partner. Because introverts can sometimes feel uncomfortable when interacting with strangers, the authors argued that the explicit instruction for them to work on getting closer may have calmed them somewhat. With the comfort of structure, they were enabled them to better enjoy talking about deep subjects (as opposed to small talk). Also, because some introverts tend to be more private, the intention of building closeness may have encouraged them to open up more than they would have done otherwise.
So what's the not-so-shocking bottom line? We connect with others when we are willing to share aspects of ourselves, demonstrate vulnerability, and listen attentively to others' experiences. Experiment with these tips and see how your relationships flourish!