How to enjoy small talk and deepen your conversations

    people images/Adobe Stock Images

The vertical questioning technique opens doors.

Source: People Images/Adobe Stock Images

Justina recently moved to a new city and has been feeling lonely, but the task of making new friends seems overwhelming. She wishes there was an easier way.

Roger has very few second dates. He is uncomfortable meeting new people and doesn’t know how to carry his conversations together with others. He wonders how to form more genuine connections.

Melinda dreads social gatherings. She has difficulty with small talk and gets bored in casual conversations. “It seems useless to go to these events and have boring conversations”, she thinks to herself.

Can you identify with Justina, Roger or Melinda? If so, vertical questioning may be for you.

This simple yet incredibly effective conversational technique helps people communicate on a deeper level. This skill is especially useful for those with childhood emotional neglect.

If you grew up in an emotionally neglectful home, you’re probably familiar with poor communication, low emphasis on emotions, and small talk. It’s hard to learn how to talk to someone on a deeper emotional level because they were never modeled for you. Instead, they taught him how to communicate using facts and logistics to avoid a conversation that might stir up emotions.

Learning to communicate through vertical questions will allow you to easily make new friends, strengthen existing bonds, and increase the rewards of your daily interactions with others.

Vertical and Horizontal Questioning

Both vertical and horizontal questioning involve asking questions when engaging in conversation. But vertical questioning prompts the person you’re conversing with to turn inward and think about their answer more deeply.

Vertical questioning is the key to making small talk or informal conversations much more interesting and satisfying, both for you and for the other person. This conversational technique creates an atmosphere of curiosity and understanding.

Horizontal questioning seeks to uncover facts and information from your conversational exchange. These are often closed questions that produce a specific answer with no room for elaboration.

Let’s take a look at how vertical and horizontal questions differ:

Horizontal questions Vertical questions

You feel good? Why do you think you feel sad?

What’s your job? How did you become interested in your line of work?

Did you have fun on vacation? What were your favorite parts of the trip?

Where you grew up? How was your childhood?

Do you enjoy nature? What kinds of outdoor activities do you enjoy?

Horizontal questions are convenient for gathering information. When used reflexively, these types of questions can precede a vertical question. You can start horizontally and ask, “What do you do for work?” and then flip vertically with, “How did you get interested in that line of work?”

When you ask a vertical question, you get a glimpse into a person’s inner world: their history, background, feelings, desires, and preferences. That is something special. I encourage you to try it out with a friend, a co-worker, your spouse, or even a stranger to see what you can learn or discover.

A horizontal conversation that collapses

Bobby: I can’t believe it’s been so long since we met! How many years has it been?

Mary: Hmm… It’s got to be about eight years now!

Bobby: Wow, that’s a long time. What’s your job?

Mary: I am working as a pediatric nurse. And you? Are you still in sales?

Bobby: Yes! I am the manager of a car dealership.

Maria: That’s great! Have you kept in touch with someone from high school?

Bobby: I really only talk to Mike, David and Daphne from time to time.

Maria: I remember them. I’ve been so busy that I haven’t kept in touch with many people.

Bobby: Do you work long hours?

Maria: Oh yeah. I work 12 hour shifts. It is exhausting.

While Bobby and Mary have learned new information about each other, they’re stuck in a question-and-answer rut. Horizontal questioning can often feel like an interrogation rather than a friendly encounter. Both Bobby and Mary have missed a few opportunities to get vertical and figure out something with a little more substance. If they keep up this pace, the conversation will stall.

Below, you’ll see how vertical questions can bring the conversation to life.

A vertical conversation that deepens

Bobby: So you’re in the nursing field. How do you like your job?

Mary: I’m a pediatric nurse and I love it. I have always loved working with children.

Bobby: That’s wonderful. What is it about working with children that you love?

(Mary answers Bobby’s question and feels engaged and open because of Bobby’s remarkable interest. Bobby learns that Mary is passionate about helping people, especially children, because of her history of helping her parents take care of of his siblings growing up. The way this conversation goes allows Bobby to share more deeply as well).

Mary: So you work at your dad’s car dealership. What is it like working with your dad?

Bobby: Actually, I run the dealership now. My dad passed away last year. I’ll be honest… it’s been a challenge. Taking over a family business and grieving the loss of my father has been difficult to deal with.

Maria: I’m so sorry to hear that. How have you been balancing that?

Bobby: I make an effort to prioritize taking care of myself. I’m sure you feel similar in the nursing field. It’s easy to put yourself last when you’re taking care of other people or have such a busy schedule all the time.

Mary: I’m so happy to hear that you’re taking care of yourself. Maybe you can give me some tips!

Bobby and Mary are learning about each other’s passions, backgrounds, and challenges through vertical questioning.

Vertical questioning can be your superpower

Vertical questioning can rejuvenate boring exchanges with others, deepen your connections, and even reduce social anxiety. Having this skill can boost your confidence and help you feel prepared when conversing with others. And you no longer have to fear small talk.

Most of those who grew up with emotional neglect in childhood struggle with communication, especially small talk or conversations that uncover emotions. This skill takes practice and getting out of your comfort zone to try something new… but it will be worth it.

Just as you may feel safer in the shallow end of the pool, you may also feel dissatisfied watching others dive and swim in the deep end. With these tools, you have the ability to go deeper. Jump when you’re ready!

© Jonice Webb, Ph.D.

Leave a Comment