How to Be Better at Small Talk

Author Article

Photo: Lan Pham

I’m trying to stop saying “I know.” I say it too much to my friends or my wife when they’re just trying to be helpful. But unless someone’s actually being a dick or assuming I’m an idiot, I don’t need to protect my ego that hard. I win more points if I say “Thanks!” or “That’s true!” and keep the conversation going. Artist Austin Kleon lists a few more conversational shortcuts that you might want to use instead of your current defaults.

For example, Kleon says, if you have trouble taking a compliment, try using “Thank you for saying that.” If someone criticizes you and you wish you could tell them to fuck off, use “You may be right.”

Kleon also cites a famous trick from writer Paul Ford: Say you’ve just met someone, and you’ve asked what they do for a living, and you have no followup. Try saying, “That sounds hard.” The other person will probably open up and express some emotion, and boom, you’re past bland small talk.

Lifehacker writer Alicia Adamczyk follows up “What do you do?” with “Do you like it?” It disarms people, she says. I like to ask “How do you do that?” It’s a less emotional version of the same question.

Another small-talk trick I’ve learned the hard way: when someone tells you their area of expertise, ask them about it, don’t tell them about it. If you meet a geneticist, don’t tell them about an article on CRISPR that you read. Ask them their opinion on it, or to correct your impression of something. Do it in an open-ended, casual way—some people don’t like to be called on to judge everything. (And don’t ask people to speak on behalf of a gender, ethnicity, or other identity.) But pay attention to what they’re interested in explaining, and dig into that. Keep asking “How does that work?” and “How do you get good at that?”—questions that assume the other person is smart.

Another conversational trap I’ve fallen into is “What have we all watched?” That’s when everyone in the conversation keeps naming shows or movies until there’s one that you’ve all seen. Then everyone freezes up, because you don’t have much to say about it. Get out of that trap by finding a similar show or film (or book or musical artist) to recommend, say why you recommend it, and then ask the others for their recommendations in turn.

And when someone asks you what you do, and you don’t want to talk about it, get ready to segue. Pivot to your hobby, or a job you had that you liked, or a thing that makes your job worth it. Remember, you’re not filling out a form, you’re making conversation.

Relationships Can Help in Borderline Personality Disorder

Author Article

For people with borderline personality disorder (BPD), relationships can be a struggle. The people close to these individuals themselves face significant challenges. With symptoms of the disorder that include difficulties with boundaries, instability of self-concept, inability to regulate emotions, and frequent attempts at self-harm, the individuals who meet this diagnosis may expect too much out of their relationship partners, react with outrage when they feel they’re being rejected, and be demanding of excessive reassurance and attention. Treatment for people with borderline personalitydisorder is generally given only to the individual instead of to the individual and close relationship partners. Such an approach not only leaves those partners out of the therapy loop, but also may fail to take advantage of the “data” a relationship partner can provide about the individual’s behavior outside of the therapy context.

According to new research by Rutgers University’s Skye Fitzpatrick and colleagues (2019), early childhood relationships are important factors in the development of this disorder. However, theorists and researchers may pay less attention than they should to adult relationships. A biopsychosocial perspective to BPD emphasizes how the disorder is maintained within the close relationships that people have in adulthood. As the authors note, “When emotional intensity increases in people with BPD, SOs (significant others) attempt to escape the intense emotion rather than engage in effective problem-solving, emotional validation, or emotional tolerance” (p. 2). As a result, the SOs become less supportive and more judgmental, and can become demanding, critical, attacking, and withholding of affection. A downward spiral ensues, only exacerbating the individual with BPD’s distress and hence, dysfunctional behaviors within the relationship.

Fitzpatrick and her colleagues note that SO’s are involved in many other types of treatments for a range of other disorders from depression to post-traumatic stress disorder. BPD would be an area particularly suitable for such interventions, given that the symptoms are so closely linked to relationship factors. Although some studies have included relationships with family members, they do not take into account the very important contributions of nonfamilial relationships. There are, Fitzpatrick et al. note, a number of potential targets of treatment if close intimate partners are involved in the process. These include reducing BPD symptoms in the individual but also reducing the distress of the SO, and thereby reducing the general distress in the relationship. SOs could also be used in therapy as “coaches,” as targets of education about the disorder, and to help the couple work on reducing their relationship distress in general.

Using this as a background, the Rutgers University researchers examined the existing literature on the most well-established approaches to BPD therapy that fall into these three categories. The first, are those coachinginterventions in which the SO actively participates in treatment. In what is called “Systems Training for Emotional Predictability and Problem-Solving (STEPPS),” clients themselves learn about such well-established therapeutic approaches as cognitive-behavioral therapy and dialectical behavior therapy, which encourage clients to challenge their thoughts, learn to manage their emotions, communicate effectively, and manage their behaviors. SOs are brought in for one 2-hour session so that they can learn about these techniques. They can bring the therapy home by asking the individual with BPD such questions as “Have you tried a skill?” when they are distressed. STEPPS was shown, in two well-controlled randomized trial interventions, to show improvement in BPD symptoms that persisted past the end of therapy.

The second way of involving family in treating people with BPD uses education and family-based interventions. In “Family Connections,” family members of people with BPD participate in 12 weeks of group therapy in which they receive information and support. They also are taught some skills from dialectical behavior therapy to learn how to build healthier relationships with the individual with BPD. The tests of this approach were mixed, and compared to STEPPS, did not appear to provide substantial improvement, and it therefore appears to work more as a support group than as a therapeutic intervention. One variant of this approach involves family skills training in methods shown to work for individuals with BPD in traditional therapy, but there are no empirical studies demonstrating its effectiveness. Small positive effects of treatment were shown in what’s called “Staying Connected,” that focuses on the SO’s distress rather than on the partner with BPD. However, there were not enough studies to support this approach’s effectiveness.

Disorder-specific therapies involve SOs in forms of therapy ordinarily used for individuals alone. In couple dialectical behavior therapy, couples are seen as trapped together in a cycle of “high emotional arousal, inaccurate expression of emotion, and invalidation” (p. 7). Therapy attempts to reduce suicidal, self-injurious, and aggressive behavior. The couple then goes on to learn how to reactivate their relationship by engaging mindfully in joint activities. They learn how to identify and express their emotions in an accurate manner, and acknowledge the feelings of their partners. The couple also learns how to manage conflict in ways that reduces destructive communication and helps to restore feelings of closeness. Couple dialectical behavior therapy, although tested only in one randomized study, showed positive effects on relationship quality as well as the SO’s levels of passion.

The next BPD-specific therapy tested in the context of couples counseling was “couple emotion dysregulation treatment.” Across 3 phases of a 16-week treatment, couples learn methods of dialectical behavior and couples cognitive behavioral treatment with the goal of reducing the couple’s levels of distress. In the couples cognitive behavior phase of the treatment, for example, couples learn to differentiate between sharing and problem-solving, and in the process learn to soothe each other and express emotion. Unfortunately, the one study testing this approach was an uncontrolled pilot study, but the results suggested that the method did yield some positive effects on relationship satisfaction that persisted beyond the end of active treatment.

Given that these studies are just a beginning, the authors believe that the involvement of SOs in treatment of people with BPD shows promise. One common feature of all these approaches is their focus on training in emotion regulation skills. Using skills taught to the individual’s partner, such an approach helps to provide consistency outside the therapy session and in the home, both in terms of the feedback the individual receives from the partner as well as through modeling. Another positive feature of this approach is that the SO learns to regulate his or her own emotions, helping to break the destructive cycle in communication that can result when their anger and frustration start to get out of control.

As noted by the Rutgers researchers, the studies that incorporate SOs have additional limitations in that most of the individuals with BPD were female. Furthermore, other theoretical underpinnings in the causes and maintenance of the disorder were not tested in the intervention context. The other major limitation, of course, is that couples treatment was not compared to treatment involving individuals alone.

To sum up, Fitzpatrick and her collaborators have laid the groundwork for a potentially crucial area of intervention research with individuals who have BPD. Taking into account the relationships that make up such an important context for the lives of people with this disorder should help advance not only the theories of BPD in adulthood, but also the everyday contexts in which this disorder affects people’s lives.

What Is Well-Being? Definition, Types, and Well-Being Skills

Author Article

What Is Well-Being?

Well-being is the experience of healthhappiness, and prosperity. It includes having good mental health, high life satisfaction, and a sense of meaning or purpose. More generally, well-being is just feeling well (Take this quiz to discover your level of well-being).

Well-being is something sought by just about everyone, because it includes so many positive things — feeling happy, healthy, socially connected, and purposeful. But unfortunately, well-being appears to be in decline (at least in the U.S.). And increasing your well-being can be tough without knowing what to do and how to do it. These are some of the reasons why I founded The Berkeley Well-Being Institute — an organization that translates the science of well-being into simple tools and products that help you build your well-being.

Can You Actually Improve Your Well-Being?

Increasing your well-being is simple — there are tons of skills you can build. But increasing your well-being is not always easy — figuring out what parts of well-being are most important for you and figuring out how, exactly, to build well-being skills usually require some extra help.

How Long Does It Take to Improve Well-Being?

Usually when people start consistently using science-based techniques for enhancing well-being, they begin to feel better pretty quickly. In the research studies that I’ve conducted and read, most people show significant improvements within five weeks.

But you have to stick to it. If you are feeling better after five weeks, you can’t just stop there.

Why? Well, you probably already know that if you stop eating healthy and go back to eating junk food, then you’ll end up back where you started. It turns out that the exact same thing is true for different types of well-being. If you want to maintain the benefits you gain, you’ll have to continue to engage in well-being-boosting practices to maintain your skills. So it’s really helpful to have strategies and tools that help you stick to your well-being goals — for example, a happiness and well-being plan or a well-being boosting activity collection that you can continue to use throughout your life.

So, what are the skills you need to build and the practices you need to engage in to build your well-being? Here’s what you need to know:

Where Does Well-Being Come From?

Well-being emerges from your thoughts, actions, and experiences — most of which we have control over. For example, when we think positive, we tend to have greater emotional well-being. When we pursue meaningful relationships, we tend to have better social well-being. And when we lose our job — or just hate it — we tend to have lower workplace well-being. These examples start to reveal how broad well-being is, and how many different types of well-being there are.

Because well-being is such a broad experience, let’s break it down into its different types.

Five Major Types of Well-Being Are:

  • Emotional Well-Being — The ability to practice stress-managementtechniques, be resilient, and generate the emotions that lead to good feelings.
  • Physical Well-Being — The ability to improve the functioning of your body through healthy eating and good exercise habits.
  • Social Well-Being — The ability to communicate, develop meaningful relationships with others, and maintain a support network that helps you overcome loneliness.
  • Workplace Well-Being — The ability to pursue your interests, values, and purpose in order to gain meaning, happiness, and enrichment professionally.
  • Societal Well-Being — The ability to actively participate in a thriving community, culture, and environment.

To build your overall well-being, you have to make sure all of these types are functioning to an extent.

Think of it like this. Imagine you are in a car. Your engine works great, and maybe your transmission works pretty well too, but your brakes don’t work. Because your brakes don’t work, it doesn’t really matter how well your engine works. You’re still going to have trouble going about your life.

The same thing is true for your well-being. If everything else in your life is going great, but you feel lonely, or you’re eating unhealthfully, other areas of your life will be affected, and you likely won’t feel as well as you want to.

Because each part of well-being is important to your overall sense of well-being, let’s talk about how to build each type of well-being.

How Do You Build the Different Types of Well-Being?

Emotional Well-Being

To develop emotional well-being, we need to build emotional skills — skills like positive thinkingemotion regulation, and mindfulness, for example. Often, we need to build a variety of these skills to cope with the wide variety of situations we encounter in our lives. When we have built these emotional well-being skills, we can better cope with stress, handle our emotions in the face of challenges, and quickly recover from disappointments. As a result, we can enjoy our lives a bit more and pursue our goals a bit more effectively.

Here are some of the skills that research suggests contribute to emotional well-being:

Physical Well-Being

To develop our physical well-being, we need to know what a healthy dietand exercise routine looks like, so that we can implement effective strategies in our daily lives. When we improve our physical well-being, not only do we feel better, our newfound health can also help prevent many diseases, boost our emotional well-being, and limit the number of health challenges we have to deal with in our lives.

Here are some of the things that can help you boost your physical well-being:

  • Eating for Health
  • Detoxing Your Body
  • Correcting Nutritional Deficiencies
  • Removing Plastic From Your Home

​Unfortunately, it’s possible to eat healthy and still be unhealthy. We can accidentally miss important foods or nutrients. Or we can overburden ourselves with toxins from plastic or processed food. As a result, we may need to eat additional foods, detox our bodies, or prevent these toxins from entering our bodies again. This is why it’s essential to learn about health, so that we can make the right changes — changes that lead to long-term health and well-being.

Social Well-Being

To develop our social well-being, we need to build our social skills — skills like gratitude, kindness, and communication. Social skills make it easier for us to have positive interactions with others, helping us to feel less lonely, angry, or disconnected. When we have developed our social well-being, we feel more meaningfully connected to others.

Here are some of the skills that research suggests contribute to better social well-being:

It’s important to know that building social well-being is one the best ways to build emotional well-being. When we feel socially connected, we also tend to just feel better, have more positive emotions, and we are able to cope better with challenges. This is why it’s essential to build our social well-being.

Workplace Well-Being

To develop our workplace well-being, we need to build skills that help us pursue what really matters to us. This can include building professional skills which help us to advance more effectively, but it also includes things like living our values and maintaining work-life balance. These skills let us enjoy our work more, helping us to stay focused, motivated, and successful at work. When we have developed workplace well-being, our work, and therefore each day, feels more fulfilling.

Here are some of the key skills you need for workplace well-being:

  • Maintaining Work-Life Balance
  • Finding Your Purpose

​Because we spend so much time at work, building our workplace well-being has a big impact on our overall well-being.

Societal Well-Being

To develop societal well-being, we need to build skills that make us feel interconnected with all things. We need to know how to support our environment, build stronger local communities, and foster a culture of compassion, fairness, and kindness. These skills help us feel like we’re part of a thriving community that really supports one another and the world at large. When we cultivate societal well-being, we feel like we are a part of something bigger than just ourselves.

Although each one of us only makes up a tiny fraction of a society, it takes all of us to create societal well-being. If each one of us did one kind act for someone else in our community, then we would live in a very kind community. Or if all of us decide we are going to recycle, then suddenly we create a world with significantly less waste. In order to live in a healthy society, we too need to contribute to making a healthy society.

Here are some of the skills you can build for greater societal well-being:

Who Benefits Most From Building Well-Being?

Not everyone experiences the same benefits from building their well-being. For example, lots of research suggests that the more motivated you are to build well-being skills, the greater the impact. Perhaps this is not surprising.

Still other research shows that having skills like a growth mindset or a positive attitude can actually help you build your other well-being skills more easily. This is why I tend to encourage people to build these skills first — afterwards, you may be able to increase the other types of well-being more easily.

In addition, building well-being skills is perhaps most beneficial for people who are struggling with well-being the most, particularly if they’ve recently undergone something stressful. It may be harder to build well-being during this time or for these people, but the impact may be greater, because there is more room for improvement.

There Is No Magic About Building Well-Being

Keep in mind, it takes time and effort to build any new skillset — that includes well-being skills. It’s important to be realistic with yourself about what you can reasonably accomplish is a given amount of time. Having unrealistic expectations can lead you to give up before you’ve reached your well-being goals. So it’s key to create a realistic plan for your well-being, stick to it, and take small actions every day that add to big improvements up over time.

If you’ve read my articles before, you might know that I too have struggled with aspects of my well-being, particularly with maintaining work-life balance. The truth is, we all struggle with different parts of well-being, and new struggles can and will pop up, even if you’re doing well. But the longer we’ve worked on strengthening our well-being skills, the easier it is to be resilient, take the actions needed to bounce back, and continue moving forward even in the face of challenges.

Yes, growing your well-being is a lifelong pursuit, but it is a pursuit that is totally worth it.