By: Ethan Maurice
While backpacking New Zealand earlier this year, I met a constant stream of new people. More than daily, I had those get-to-know-each-other conversations where topics of discussion circled around where you're from, what you do, how long you've been in the country, and other acquainting question-and-answer dialog.
These get-to-know-each-other conversations are vital in understanding another human being. However, after a few weeks, a hunger for more meaningful conversation grew within me.
I began to see this basic, everyday conversation as outer shell conversation that masked the inner shell conversation of things deeper and more representative of who we are that we could be having.
Graphically illustrated, I saw it like this:
Of course, outer shell conversation gives us a vital, basic understanding of each other, but we must also admit it's a protective layer. It lets us converse without investing ourselves in serious discussion with someone else. A convenient test of the water with an acquaintance, should we not want to go further into a conversation or reveal who we are, outer shell conversation is safe and easy to escape. Additionally, this superficial layer allows us to communicate without conflict—a social lubricant that allows for easy conversation with anyone, even those with fiercely opposing beliefs and ideas than we hold (as outer shell conversation doesn't include such things).
However, outer shell conversation becomes trite and boring and lacks the best that the remarkable human ability of verbal communication has to offer. Deeper, inner shell conversation about the beliefs, feelings, and motivations that are the core from which the external aspects of our lives grow make for fascinating and worthwhile discussion.
Once I met someone and took a general liking of them in our outer shell conversation, I was never quite sure about how to break through into discussion of what lies within the shell. How does one go from swapping the favorite places you've been thus far in New Zealand to revealing the motivations that underlie their actions in life?
A tricky conversational puzzle to solve, I developed two ways to break through into inner-shell conversation:
1. Common ground.
It was often the discovery of a mutual interest in outer shell conversation where we broke through into inner shell discussion. Subjects ranging from books, to difficulty approaching girls in a bar, to singular events that changed the course of our lives served as common ground used to break through into some of the best conversations I had in New Zealand.
Once we found common ground, I would explain some inner shell aspect of that common ground in my own life and ask them about it in theirs. For instance, if books were our shared interest, I'd talk about why I read and then ask why they read, branching us into a revealing, inner shell discussion of the whys that drive our actions in life.
2. Deliberate, inner shell questions.
Sometimes I would deliberately pose an inner shell question—an attempted shortcut to break through our outer shell conversation. I'd preface such a question with something like: “So, I only pose such questions to people I genuinely enjoy...” (which is absolutely true; I've had varying results asking such questions to a wider range of individuals). Then, depending on the person and the conversation we've been having, I'd ask, “What are you most excited about in life and why?” or “What's the one thing you worry about most?” or “What brings the most meaning to your life?” To give an example and them time to think, I usually answer first myself and then repose the question at the end of my answer.
*If you're interested in such direct, inner shell questions here's a useful list of 36 questions that can help jump-start inner shell conversation.
What's vital to note here is that the key ingredient in breaking through outer shell conversation is trust. Trust that in opening our soft, inner shells of motivations, hopes, and feelings, they won't be ignored, perceived as the ramblings of an idiot, or heartlessly crapped upon.
Without a degree of trust in someone, most people are not comfortable exposing the intimate, inner workings of their lives. So first we must get to know each other a little and establish trust through outer shell conversation.
Then, you can try to break through that outer shell—the protective shield of our most intimate, inner thoughts and workings—on into the stuff that's really on our minds.
And what's so great about venturing into that inner shell conversation with another human being, besides it being fascinating and meaningful and heartwarming, is that once you've broken through that outer shell with someone, you'll never need to break through each other's outer shells again.
Because when you're having inner shell conversation, you're conversing not as acquaintances, but as old friends.