How To Talk On An Emotional Level

Have you ever experienced a conversation with someone and you didn’t know how to get to a deeper emotional level? I for my part dislike small talk. I just find it boring. “How is the weather in Tampa? Is this heat wave still going on?” Even writing it seems to make some grey cells want to commit suicide. But for the better part of my life, I had no idea how to navigate around the seemingly unavoidable small talk and how to talk on an emotional level.

That should change one warm summer night on the university campus.

You can also watch this post as a video (but the text is more in-depth):

“How was your exam?” she – an acquaintance who I met at the exam – asked after we were done. Here we go again. A new round of mind-numbingly polite small talk followed by some awkward silence. “Not this time,” I swore myself. I needed to find a way to get to a deeper, more emotional level, but how in the world could a guy whose favourite words are ‘effectivity’ and ‘strategy’ do that? Well, strategically.

The 3 Step Rule

First, I needed a transition from small talk into more emotional subjects.

It’s self-evident that you can’t continue a conversation that started with “How was your exam?” with “Great! Now tell me about your deepest desires.”

So I decided to give what I call the 3 Step Rule a try.

Step 1: Talk on the same level of emotion your conversational partner is on.
Step 2: Show vulnerability by opening up first in order to make the other person feel safe.
Step 3: Gradually introduce more emotion.

Here is how I continued the conversation:

“The exam went great! I think it’s gonna be an A. I am so relieved it’s over now. All that studying made me almost go crazy and I am so happy to be talking to real people again.”

Let’s rip my answer into pieces and take a closer look at the remains:

  • “The exam went great! I think it’s gonna be an A.” – I answer the question and stay on a rational level. One foot in front of the other.
  • “I am so relieved it’s over now.” – I cautiously introduce some emotion.
  • “All that studying made me almost go crazy and I am so happy to be talking to real people again.” – By showing vulnerability I give her permission to open up as well.

Not a perfect answer, but definitely good enough.

Now it was her turn. I did my part and gave her the opportunity to talk on an emotional level with me. Here is what she threw back at me:

“I feel exactly the same way! At one point I was so fed up with studying that I put my books aside for a day, called some friends, and went on a binge drinking spree. Not a good idea!”

Bingo! Now I was in the perfect spot to take the conversation in any direction I wanted. Here are some possible options:

  • “I think if I did that I couldn’t get back to studying. Are you a party girl?” – flirting for beginners.
  • “We should celebrate!” – to get shitfaced.
  • “It’s crazy how after all the pressure is gone you kind of start to miss the studying.” – more of the same.
  • “Are you gonna write any other exams this week?” – small talk.
  • “I once went to an exam directly after going out and aced it.” She: “Really?” I: “No, I failed miserably and puked on the school toilet.” – to make her laugh. (or find out she has not sense of humor whatsoever)

We talked for a long time and decided to do more exams together in the future. It was a breakthrough for me. But the story didn’t end there; I knew I was lucky that my friend was receptive to taking the conversation to a deeper level, but of course not everyone would immediately open up like that.

Let’s find out why and what you can do about it.

The right situation

Not every situation is suitable for talking about emotional topics. When you meet someone in a parking lot with grocery bags in their hands, you probably will do better with, “Hey, how is it going? Wanna meet up tonight? I’ll give you a call. See you!” than with a spirited debate about sexual desires.


What is the perfect situation?

  • You have privacy.
  • You sit in an angle to each other or next to each other (like birds on a wire).
  • You are involved in an activity that doesn’t demand any attention. (drinking, smoking, walking, throwing a baseball,…)
  • Both of you aren’t stressed and have enough time.
  • Both of you aren’t distracted by other thoughts or emotions.

The right person

In my experienced, the vast majority of people want to talk about deeper topics than traffic jams or weather conditions. (given the right situation) However, occasionally you will come across more challenging types. But don’t worry, there are ways to get through to the ‘less emotionally expressive.’

The buttoned-up type

Some people just can’t open up unless they are drunk, or stoned, or both. That’s fine. I have friends who are like that and I always use the opportunity to talk to them when the situation is right. You can’t push anyone to talk about their feelings.

How do you know someone is not receptive? I’ll take my example about the exam to illustrate it.

I: “The exam went great! I think it’s gonna be an A. I am so relieved it’s over now. All that studying made me almost go crazy and I am so happy to be talking to real people again.”


  • “I think I’m gonna get a B or C.”
  • “Have you seen Tanja lately?”
  • “Damn, it’s so hot today! I should have left my jacket at home.”

So if the other person changes the topic or obviously tries to stay in the small talk zone, you should stop pushing. They are signaling an unwillingness to go deeper.

You can’t force anyone to open up. You have got to wait for the right circumstances or create the right circumstances.

The suspicious type

Other people do want to talk about things that move them, but need a little more trust than others. All you have to do in that case is make them more comfortable and show them that their secrets are safe with you.

I: “The exam went great! I think it’s gonna be an A. I am so relieved it’s over now. All that studying made me almost go crazy and I am so happy to be talking to real people again.”

Them: “I know the feeling. It happens to me also.”

In this example, your conversational partner opens up a little and shows receptiveness. But not much yet. All you need to do is show more vulnerability so your conversational partner can feel secure about talking openly.


A sentence that can work wonders in such situations is: “Tell me more about it.” It gives the other person permission to talk, shows you are interested, and in case the other person is just a little opposed to opening up, it causes a slight push. Most people wouldn’t say “I don’t want to talk about it” after they gave you some hints that they feel likewise.

Having an emotional opinion

“What do you think about euthanasia?” You probably won’t have much of an opinion about questions like this unless you have concerned yourself with the topic before.

In school, and especially later in college and university, you learn to have an opinion on topics ranging from abortion to the war on drugs. But who ever taught you about emotional opinions?

The whole process is laughably simple. Whenever something noteworthy happens in your life, ask yourself: “How do I feel about this?”

Let’s practice with some examples:

  • Friends meet and don’t invite you: “I feel excluded and sad because it seems they don’t enjoy hanging out with me anymore.”
  • You start a new job: “I feel excited because this job poses new opportunities to my career, but I am also nervous because I feel like I have to prove myself.”
  • You just graduated from university: “I feel incredibly happy and proud but the feelings are bittersweet because I still have no idea what I want to do next.”

Do the same with information you get from other people. When someone tells you: “I’ve been thinking about moving to Germany”, they don’t want you to suggest cities with low crime rates and good health care. They want to tell you about their inner fights and why they feel they have to go.

People are constantly crying out for attention to their feelings but seldom someone listens. Those who do are rewarded with lifelong friendships, exciting romances, and happy relationships.

I think you are now well equipped to take future conversations from boring small talk to relationship building exchange of feelings. Just know that even though going deeper can often be more interesting and beneficial, there is nothing wrong with some mindless chatter or flirtatious joking. Every form of communication has its place and time.

Have fun practicing!

Take care,