Some people have no trouble getting to know others. You might even have a friend like that.
Ten minutes with someone new, and they’re chatting away as if they’ve known each other for years. But not everyone has such an easy time connecting with new people.
When trying to find out more about a new acquaintance, you might be tempted to run through a long list of questions. While asking questions is certainly a good starting point, it’s only part of the equation.
Here’s a look at how to get to know someone on a deeper level without a ton of small talk.
Again, questions do serve a purpose when you’re getting to know someone. In fact, you’d probably have a hard time communicating without asking any questions at all.
But it’s important to make sure you’re asking questions you’re truly interested in. Not much of a film person? Don’t feel like you have to rattle off the age-old “Seen any good movies lately?”
Consider how you’d feel if someone asked you a lot of questions that didn’t seem to have much purpose:
- “What’s your middle name?”
- “Do you have any pets?”
- “What’s your favorite food?”
You’d probably feel overwhelmed, or even like you stumbled into an interview you weren’t prepared for.
Instead of asking random questions, let the conversation guide you, and look for cues from the other person. For example, if you notice a co-worker has a desktop background of dogs, you might say, “Oh, how cute! Are those your dogs?”
Remember, you don’t have to ask everything that comes to mind. People naturally reveal information about themselves over time.
If you keep talking to them, you’ll probably end up getting answers to even those questions you didn’t ask.
Say you just met someone who seems really great. You can definitely see yourself becoming friends, maybe even something more. Once you feel that initial spark of interest, you want to know more about them ASAP.
But rattling off a lot of questions may not be the best move. Sure, you’ll find out key facts about the person, such as where they grew up and how many siblings they have. But one thoughtful question might give you even more information.
For example, if you want to ask about family, you could say, “Do you spend a lot of time with your family?” This will likely get you a better answer than simply asking if they have siblings.
People often default to rapid, superficial questioning when they sense a lull in the conversation. But this initial awkwardness is totally normal.
A 2018 study found it usually takes about a month for conversation patterns to settle into a comfortable rhythm.
In the meantime, try not to be too put off by any moments of silence or awkwardness that might come up.
If you have a hard time getting through those initial awkward moments, Katherine Parker, LMFT, suggests practicing with a trusted friend. Start with an opener, such as “Hey, I love that patch on your bag. Did you design it?” and practice keeping the conversation going.
If you’re genuinely interested in getting to know someone, you can’t just ask them questions. You also have to pay attention to their answers. You can use active listening skills to show someone you have a sincere interest in what they have to say.
Active listening means you participate in the conversation even when you’re not speaking.
How to do it
Give active listening a try by:
- making eye contact
- turning or leaning toward the person speaking
- nodding or making affirming noises while listening
- waiting to speak until they finish
- restating or empathizing with what they’ve said (“You broke your arm twice in one year? That must have been horrible, I can’t imagine.”)
You can learn a lot from how someone physically responds to a question. Do they lean in to reply? Gesture or seem otherwise animated as they answer?
If they seem excited, you’ve probably landed on a good topic. If they turn their body or head away, shrug off the question, or give a brief answer, they may not have much interest.
Learning to recognize someone’s level of interest can help you have more success with communication. Someone may have less interest in talking to you if they think you’ll continue asking questions about things they don’t really care about.
We all feel distracted and unfocused at times. This can happen even when you’re doing something enjoyable, like talking to someone you’re interested in getting to know.
But zoning out can come across as being disinterested, especially to someone who doesn’t know you well.
If you feel your attention wandering, resist the urge to reach for your phone or otherwise check out of the conversation. Instead, take a mindful moment and remind yourself of what you’re doing — and why.
If you really can’t give your attention to the conversation, just be honest. Say something like, “I had a rough day, and I want to give this conversation better attention than I’m capable of right now.” This can help the other person feel valued. They’ll probably respect your honesty, too.
It might seem harmless to fudge the truth a little in order to relate to someone.
You read “The Hunger Games,” so you enthuse about how much you love dystopian young adult novels. Or, maybe you want to join your cute co-worker’s running group, so you casually mention running 5 miles every other morning when your shoes have been sitting in the back of the closet for months.
As minor as these exaggerations might seem, developing trust is an important step in getting to know a person. When the truth comes out (and it usually does), they might wonder what else you’ve exaggerated, or if your entire friendship is based on a lie.
You don’t always have to like the same things to make a connection. Let areas of similarity come naturally. If they don’t, you can always introduce each other to those things you’re passionate about.
Your relationships shouldn’t be one-sided. You won’t have much of a friendship if the other person doesn’t get to know you, too. Along with asking questions, try to share things about yourself.
You can offer personal details naturally over the course of a conversation, often by replying to what someone says. For example: “You like to cook? That’s amazing. I don’t have much patience in the kitchen, but I love to make cocktails.”
Some people may feel uncomfortable if they know very little about who they’re talking to, so sharing things about yourself can help them feel more at ease.
You can then bring the conversation back to the other person with a related question, like, “Did you teach yourself to cook?”
According to Parker, people who find it hard to connect with others often have trouble connecting with themselves. She advises developing your own hobbies and interests so you can expand your experiences.
Praising someone might seem like a good way to get them to like you, but you don’t want to overdo it. This can be off-putting, since it often seems insincere. Also, it can often make people uncomfortable.
A good rule of thumb is to make compliments meaningful and sincere. A heartfelt compliment can help start a conversation that provides an opportunity to get to know someone better.
Use care when complimenting appearance. While there’s usually no harm in admiring a unique piece of clothing or jewelry, avoid making comments about someone’s looks or size, even if you think you’re saying something positive.
Also keep in mind that comments on appearance aren’t always appropriate in the workplace.
If someone you recently met starts telling you about a problem they’re dealing with, your gut reaction might be to offer advice. But it’s best to just listen with empathy, unless they specifically ask what you think or what you would do in the same situation.
If you really want to help, say “That sounds really tough. If you need anything, let me know. I’m happy to help out if I can.”
It’s generally best to avoid asking for too much advice yourself, too.
Maybe you want to show the other person you value their thoughts and input. But constantly asking “What do you think about that?” or “What should I do?” or even “Do you think I did the right thing?” can put someone on the spot for an answer they may not feel comfortable giving.
Texting might feel like a good way to avoid the initial awkwardness that sometimes comes with getting to know someone. But try not to rely too heavily on this kind of communication, especially in the early stages. If distance is an issue, consider video chatting.
Whenever possible, save texting for making plans or a quick “Hey, I was thinking of you.” You can let the other person guide you here. If you both enjoy texting, go for it.
Just take care to maintain balance. Remember, you’re having a conversation, so try to avoid text walls and give the other person a chance to reply. Save more intense conversations for in-person communication to help you avoid miscommunication.
Avoid sending a lot of texts before you receive a reply. People get busy, and coming back to 12 messages after 1 day can feel overwhelming.
If someone is already taking space from your messages, sending more won’t help the situation.
When making plans with someone new, using things from your conversation or cues in their environment can help.
Coffee is usually an easy option, but coming up with a more personalized plan shows you’ve been paying attention. That can help someone feel more comfortable around you. For example, if you both have dogs, you might suggest going to a dog park.
Using conversation cues can also help you know what to avoid suggesting. You wouldn’t want to suggest meeting at a bar to someone who’s mentioned staying sober, for example.
There may come a time when you arrive late or have to cancel your plans, but try not to let this happen often. Arriving on time and keeping commitments shows you value the other person’s time.
Some people love talking about politics, religion, past relationships, current relationship(s), or any number of other potentially delicate topics. Others don’t. Many people don’t feel comfortable talking about these issues until they know someone well.
Even if you love getting right into the deep, meaningful subjects, it’s generally wise to exercise caution when you’re just getting to know someone.
“So, what do you think happens when we die?” may not be the best topic the first time you meet up for coffee. Save that one for the cozier late-night chat you might have a few weeks or months down the road.
It’s perfectly fine to introduce more sensitive topics in a general way, especially if you prefer to know how someone feels about certain subjects from the beginning.
But pay attention to how they respond. If they give short answers, move to another topic. If they simply say they’d rather not talk about something, respect that and change the subject.
If you want to get to know someone more intimately, your approach shouldn’t be one-sided. In other words, you can’t expect someone to share personal information if you aren’t willing to do the same.
You usually have to offer some level of vulnerability before someone begins feeling comfortable around you.
This doesn’t mean you have to open up about heavy or serious topics right away. But over time, you might naturally begin sharing more information about the things that matter in your life.
It’s just fine to keep things casual and lighthearted, if that’s the kind of friendship you’re looking for. But if you want your new acquaintanceship to develop into a close friendship or even a romance, you may not be able to get there without becoming vulnerable.
On the other hand, make sure you’re respecting their boundaries. If they tell you they don’t want to talk about something or seem to turn away when you bring up a certain topic, don’t push it.
It can take more than 100 hours over a period of 3 months for a friendship to develop.
Of course, simply spending time with someone doesn’t mean you’ll form a long lasting friendship, but your chances for friendship tend to increase when you spend more time with someone.
It’s understandable to want to get closer to someone right away, but letting things naturally develop can have better results than forcing a friendship.
Just focus on spending time with the person you want to get to know, and use the tips above to help make that time count.
Also keep in mind that friendships may not always work out. Just as some people aren’t compatible as romantic partners, some people also aren’t compatible as friends, and that’s OK.
If you’ve made an effort but the two of you don’t seem to click, it’s perfectly acceptable to stop extending invitations and just make polite conversation when you see them at school, work, or anywhere else. Let them reach out to you next, if they still want to pursue a friendship.