How to Spark Powerful Chemistry Through Simple Conversation

Article by Wendy L. Patrick, J.D., Ph.D., Psychology Today

Practicing the art and science of bonding through talking

Have you ever met someone and instantly clicked?  Most of us have.  Thinking back, what created the spark?  Most likely it was a combination of topic, tone, and tenor, but it no doubt happened within a verbal exchange.  Conversation is one of the easiest ways to connect.  Although not everyone likes to talk.  Some people are shy, aloof, emotionally distant, or otherwise unapproachable.  You may have tried (unsuccessfully) for years to soften up a standoffish employee at the office, only to hit it off instantly with a stranger at the airport. Apparently, familiarity is not the deciding factor.  What is?  Research has some answers.

Let’s Talk: Topics and Tactics

Because chemistry is created through conversation, topics matter.  Whether you are seeking to cultivate a relationship personally or professionally, successful ice breakers are questions the other person actually wants to answer.  Thankfully, there are some tried and true safe harbors within the subject spectrum.

Unless there are significant privacy concerns, asking about someone’s children is a relatively safe subject that prompts people to open up — usually with great enthusiasm.  And in terms of furthering a pleasurable exchange, listening to a gushing recitation of an eldest son’s football career, or a daughter’s promotion at work, gives you an abundance of information to follow up on.

But creating chemistry requires more than pleasurable topics.  Consider how much more than words are exchanged when two people are talking.  Pace, tone, body language, facial expression, and emotion.  We form interpersonal bonds and build rapport nonverbally in many different situations — with many different types of people. Research corroborates these observations.

Chemistry Goes Beyond Content

Namkje Koudenburg et al. (2017) studied the impact of conversational form, beyond its content, on the emergence and regulation of social structure.[i]  They recognize the importance of social interaction to the formation of social relationships and groups.  Acknowledging widespread knowledge about the importance of conversational content, they focused on how the act of conversing, regardless of the content, impacts a sense of solidarity. They note that conversation micro-characteristics such as smooth turn-taking and brief silences have the potential to significantly impact relationship regulation and a sense of solidarity. The researchers opine this result. Conversation form represents group social structure and provides a continuous assessment of group norms, hierarchy, and shared reality. But there’s more.

On the Same Wavelength

Koudenburg et al. cite previous research in recognizing that we validate our viewpoints by exchanging information with other people.  Yet they note that a sense of shared reality does not emerge merely through information exchange or comparing opinions, it is created through a subjective experience of smooth conversation flow—because of the visceral sensation of being on the same wavelength.

Accordingly, we should be more successful in connecting with others when discussing matters of mutual interest. Think this through beforehand when you are seeking to make a good impression, you no doubt have some type of interest in common with everyone.  Breaking the ice with strategically selected (safe) subjects will spark both conversation and chemistry.

The Role of Rapport

Other research adds an additional layer to the chemistry analysis, discussing the importance of building rapport. Zachary G. Baker et al. (2020) explain that rapport plays an important role in satisfying basic psychological needs.[ii] They describe rapport as positively linked to liking, cooperation, self-disclosure, and affiliation.  In their research, Baker et al. found rapport independently predicted need satisfaction in the areas of autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

Also, of interest, Baker et al. found that the relationships between interaction partners did not moderate the resulting associations. This last point is of particular interest when attempting to build relationships with acquaintances or even strangers; rapport is not only possible, but also a powerful way to bond socially.

The bottom line appears to be that as we trial attorneys know after years of questioning witnesses, it’s not just what you say but how you say it. The same applies to sparking chemistry through conversation. Topic, tone, and tenor have the potential to become relational building blocks, allowing you to authentically connect with anyone.

References[i] Koudenburg, Namkje, Tom Postmes, and Ernestine H. Gordijn. 2017. “Beyond Content of Conversation: The Role of Conversational Form in the Emergence and Regulation of Social Structure.” Personality and Social Psychology Review 21 (1): 50–71. doi:10.1177/1088868315626022.

[ii] Baker, Zachary G., Emily M. Watlington, and C. Raymond Knee. 2020. “The Role of Rapport in Satisfying One’s Basic Psychological Needs.” Motivation and Emotion, January. doi:10.1007/s11031-020-09819-5.

Article by Wendy L. Patrick, J.D., Ph.D., Psychology Today


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