A long time ago, I realized that some of my easiest conversations were while walking or hiking or driving in a car with someone. Then I noticed that group chats were much easier when the group was playing a game. People can go from anxious small talk to conversing like old friends after 5 minutes of poker.
For a long time I thought that the key element to this increased ease came from having an activity to do or a shared interest to discuss. People relax when they can socialize on top of something with more rigid expectations and rules. People bond over shared interests. But in recent years I’ve realized that there’s something else at play. I think a key element to the increased ease is that people have something to look at - the path ahead, the road, the gameboard.
Without something to look at, people have to look at the each other. With that comes a lot of subconscious (and conscious) reading into reactions. Pauses in the conversation are awkward because you’re just staring at each other.
However, with something to look at, there’s less overanalyzing. Conversations can have pauses more naturally because you’re contemplating the thing in focus, instead of staring in expectation.
I think this is part of why, for example, people walking dogs often have more conversational ease - the dog gives something for prospective chatters to direct their gaze towards. I think this is why bars with sports on TV are often less awkward. I’ve had many great conversations while staring at sports I cared nothing about.
I started testing this hypothesis at work and the outcomes validated it in dramatic fashion.
Now, instead of slightly awkward interviews staring at candidates, I try to always have one person writing on a whiteboard. Instead of having group meetings where each person gets a spotlight of focus each time they talk, I always present notes on the screen. It’s amazing how that simple change can make a hot-topic meeting go from feeling like a battle royale to a less anxious, more collaborative effort.
I also present notes I’m taking in every one-on-one that I do. Beyond giving people something to focus on, it also has the benefit of making sure good and accurate notes are taken.
In life and at work: if you’re looking for a shortcut to relaxed conversation, give people something to look at.