How to make better friends and get past small talk according to a professional improviser

I think improv is relevant far beyond the stage because improvisation is simply the art of acting without a script. And how often are we forced to do that in our everyday life? We are improvising all of the time! Especially in conversations or when we are trying to build new relationships. 

Great conversationalists look super smooth and naturally gifted but, whether they realise it or not, they are actually using some simple techniques that anyone can learn. My world of improv pulls back the magician’s curtain and shows you what they are. 

If you want to get past small talk and make better friendships, then it’s about taking things deeper in the conversation. This doesn’t have to be boring or heavy! It’s simply about cutting to the emotional nub of the matter. So, how can you do that?

It begins with paying close attention to the person. Improvising might seem like magic but it’s simply about looking, listening, and then responding to the last thing the other person says. But we often skip those first two parts! Instead, we get stuck in our head thinking about what we are going to say next. 

But it’s what we pay attention to that’s most important. The true meaning of what another person is saying can be found in their body language, their vocal tone, or their specific word choice as they say it. Once you’ve picked up on this emotional subtext, just call it out with a technique known as ‘labelling.’

With labelling, you notice what the other person is doing or saying and respond with: ‘You seem…’ or ‘You sound…’ or ‘You look…’, and then fill in the blank accordingly. I used this technique the other day in a conversation with a new friend. We were talking about a book by a quite famous author and while she wasn’t using any specific words that made it sound like she didn’t like it, the way she said it suggested exactly that. So, I said, ‘You sound like you hate it!’ And it turns out she did! Our conversation quickly got beyond vague banalities and onto ground where I could really get to know her. 

Another thing great conversationalists do is they ask great questions. Not generic boring questions like, ‘What are you doing this weekend?’ But questions inspired by their curiosity about the other person. Questions that tend to begin with: ‘how?’ or ‘what?’ or ‘why?’ This not only takes the pressure off you, the other person loves it, because they feel important. And most of all, by asking great questions, you help them get to know themselves better. 

But great conversations work two ways, so you are going to have to show up with some vulnerability yourself. This doesn’t mean you have to confess every dark secret, it’s just about being authentic in the moment: giving the other person the unvarnished truth about what you think, feel, or do. A simple way of doing that is to respond to what another person says with, ‘That reminds me…’ and then fill in the blank with a personal experience. Without this reciprocity you’ll never build intimate connection. As the writer Brene Brown once put it, showing empathy is not about saying ‘poor you’ it’s about saying, ‘me too.’ And empathy is the foundation of better friendships. 

Max Dickins is author of Improvise! Use the Secrets of Improv to Achieve Extraordinary Results at Work which is out now. He is co-director of improvisation training company Hoopla! Hoopla run improv classesshows and corporate training.


Share this article