The Three Magic Words that Create Great Conversations

Sam & me on the bleachers Shandi-lee Cox via Compfight

We all know great conversations when we find ourselves in one.  We find an area of common interest with another human being and the dialogue just flows.  But these moments don’t come along as often as we like.  With a stranger, we don’t know where to begin.  And in a long-term relationship, we may feel like we’ve exhausted the subjects of common interest, and the dialogue becomes more mundane.

I’ve been thinking about how I can improve my own conversational skills and I think I’ve found one technique that works pretty well and can be summed up in 3 simple words: “Tell me more.”

This technique forces you to listen to another person with a state of curiosity and try to find the thread of the conversation that they want to have.  Anything that another person says is an opening on a topic that they want to talk about.  And even if the topic is not in an area of mutual passion, it gives you something to build on.  By giving the person more space to share their thoughts about any subject they’ve broached, you open up more opportunities to find areas of mutual interest.

Some psychologists, such as Shelly Gable and Harry Reis, have described a version of this they call “active constructive responding” or “ACR.”  In ACR, you respond to good news by sharing in the excitement of the other person and helping them to relive the moment by asking to share more details.  Sportscasters do this all the time when they interview an athlete after an important match (e.g., “What was going through your mind when you scored the winning goal?”)

Another psychologist, David Grove, developed a technique (used primarily in psychotherapy and coaching) of asking open-ended questions to help someone get clearer about their own experience.  The technique is called “Clean Language” because it is intended to help the person go deeper into their own understanding without being distorted or swayed by the response of the listener.

Penny Tompkins and James Lawley, two authors that have written about Clean Language, describe the goal of Clean Language by saying, “the therapist aims to ask the question the client’s information wants to be asked.” Anything a person shares can give a clue as to where the conversation needs to go.

“Tell me more” does not in any way encapsulate the more complex models of ACR and Clean Language, so I’d encourage you to do some more digging to learn more about them.  But conceptually, “tell me more” is a simpler way of thinking about some of these response strategies that is easy to remember and apply.

You don’t have to use the exact phrase, “Tell me more.”  You can, of course, but I would not recommend repeating “tell me more” like a robot to everything your conversation partner says (a sure way to kill the conversation.)  Here are some creative example questions to keep the conversation going by capturing the spirit of “tell me more”:

“how did that make you feel?”

“what was that like?”

“what was the best part?”

“how did that happen?” or “what led up to that?”

“now what?” or “what happens next?”

“what else can you tell me?”

Oh, Mickey!Creative Commons License jennie-o via Compfight

By allowing your partner to expand on the areas they’ve shown an interest in, you get to know them better and find more opportunities for greater connection.

There is one caveat to this technique: This may not work when someone is sharing bad news.  People might not want to spend more time thinking and talking about the bad things that have happened to them, so simply feeling heard is sometimes all we can do (think of how you might translate the phrase “I see you” from the movie Avatar.)

But if your conversation partner is not sharing bad news, try this technique and let me know how it works.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a stranger on an elevator, a close friend or relative, or your spouse coming home from a day at work.  Whatever they share with you, look them in the eye, smile, and say, “tell me more.”  You might be surprised at what happens.

References and recommended reading:

p.s. Special thanks to Mike Sands from the Friends of Positive Psychology list serv who introduced me to this idea and Clean Language.


by Jeremy McCarthy

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2 Responses to The Three Magic Words that Create Great Conversations

  1. Wan January 25, 2014 at 3:30 am #

    I’ve read about the tell me more method in the book The Fine Art of Small Talk by Debra Fine. The great thing about asking people to “tell me more” is it makes for an interesting conversation because you can learn more from others.


  1. How to Be a Great Conversationalist at Your Office Holiday Party | Enjoying The Moment - December 6, 2013

    […] this, there’s a three-word fix all, according to a recent post by Jeremy McCarthy on positive psychology blog The Psychology of Wellbeing: “Tell Me More.” McCarthy looks at psychological approaches to keeping conversations flowing, […]

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