Conversation is central to our happiness and well-being. Studies show that social interactions, even if very brief, leave us feeling more satisfied and happy. In our busy world, however, it’s not always easy to carve out the time for sparkling conversation.

Here are four strategies to improving regular exchanges, and boosting our feelings of connecting with and sharing with others.

1. Practice Speaking With Everybody

One common mistake is thinking that the only conversations worth having are with good friends. On the contrary, making smallMaking small talk can make us feel more optimistic talk with co-workers or even exchanging pleasantries with complete strangers can make us feel happier and more optimistic about our place in the world.

In one Canadian study, researchers asked patrons of a coffee shop in Vancouver to place their orders in two different ways: Half were asked to be efficient, asking only for coffee and not making any extraneous small talk; the other half were asked to chat with the barista and other people standing in line. Afterwards, the two groups of customers’ moods differed significantly. Those who had taken the extra moments to chat with strangers reported feeling markedly more happy and also said they felt more connected to others.

The same researchers later conducted experiments in which students kept track of the number of social interactions they engaged in each day: Students who reported talking with more people again reported greater well-being and joy. Even making small talk with acquaintances or strangers had an effect, engendering feelings of belonging and self-esteem.

This echoes Jewish teachings. The great sage Shammai was known to advise us to “greet everyone with a pleasant countenance.”1 It’s not only good friends who deserve our care and attention. Engaging in conversation with those we come across can enrich our lives and theirs, and could even forge new bonds of friendship.

2. Be Curious

Years ago, I commented to a good friend who was a news reporter that she was the best conversationalist I knew. She could talk to anyone, anywhere, and wind up having a fascinating, deep exchange of ideas. “I just pretend that I’m interviewing them,” my friend explained. “I want to know all about them!”

It turns out that research backs up my friend’s approach. Apparently, the more questions we ask, the more satisfying the conversations become—and the more likeable we appear.

Todd Kashdan, a psychology professor at George Mason University, experimented with different groups of people, asking some to be curious about each other’s lives and inquire about other people in their group. In each case, asking about others led to more satisfying conversations. “Being interested is more important in cultivating a relationship and maintaining a relationship than being interesting.” Kashdan said curiosity is “what gets the dialogue going. It’s the secret juice of relationships.”

Two thousand years ago, the great Jewish sage Shimon Ben Azzai noted that every single person is valuable and precious: “Do not be scornful of any person and do not be disdainful of anything, for you have no person without his hour and no thing without its place.”2 Everyone has something valuable to share and teach us. Making the effort to get to know other people can help us connect and grow as we get to know others.

3. Stow Your Phone

SmartphonesNothing kills a conversation faster than having a phone handy are changing the way we speak and interact with others, and often not in good ways. Perhaps nothing kills a conversation faster than having a phone handy and scanning it during conversations, introducing a major distraction and hurting our ability to truly connect with the people right in front of us.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Sherry Turkle studies the way college students relate to one another, and she’s noticed a disturbing new trend. Some students have called it the “rule of three.” This unofficial “rule” works like this: As long as at least three people are actively speaking with one another, other people present are allowed to discreetly check their phones, zoning out of the conversation to engage with the world electronically for a few minutes. When that person resurfaces and rejoins the conversation, another person is free to look at his or her phone.

Unsurprisingly, this behavior weakens conversations and leaves people feeling unsatisfied. Turkle describes many conversations as “light” for this reason: zoning out for a few minutes to check phones prevents us from developing deeper, more meaningful talks and keeps the conversational level superficial.

Even the very presence of a smartphone is enough to distract us and render conversations less than satisfying. In one famous and oft-repeated study, researchers at Virginia Tech asked people to meet in a cafe and have a 10-minute chat. Half the couples were instructed to either hold a smartphone or place it on the table during the conversation, but not to use it. The other half were told to stow their phones out of sight.

The results were shocking: Those people who’d talked without a phone visible reported much higher levels of satisfaction with their conversations. They also reported feeling much more empathetic to the person they had been speaking with. Strikingly, this was true both for conversational partners who knew each other well and for those who didn’t. Even close friends reported lower levels of satisfaction and felt less close to one another if a cell phone was there.

When it comes to phones, it seems that there’s no such thing as a harmless amount of exposure: They hamper conversation, whether we’re actively using them or even if they are simply present.

One way to go phone-free is to follow the rules of Shabbat and give up phones or other electronic distractions once a week (or at least hide them away when we spend time with friends and family). While we’re all slaves to our electronic devices these days, it seems that Shabbat is the one time we can rest and recharge, and experience the world without the lure and interference of phones.

4. Be an Active Listener

Leadership consultants Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman note that listening is like driving in one curious respect—people tend to overestimate their skills in both activities, rating themselves as exceptionally skilled, whether they’re behind the wheel or immersed in conversation.

Yet when it comes to listening, many of us fall short. We tend to stumble into one of two common traps. Sometimes, we zone out, murmuring “hmm” or saying OK periodically, but not really listening as well as we could. At the other end of the spectrum, too many of us adopt a combative conversational style, waiting for our interlocutor to slip up or make an error we can then pounce on. This negative conversational mode has become the default in some radio and television settings, making it seem normal. In reality, it prevents conversation, making a genuine exchange of ideas impossible.

EffectiveEffective conversationalists employ active listening conversationalists employ active listening, focusing on what is being said to them. Zenger and Folkman analyzed the conversational styles of thousands of people and identified three key traits among the best listeners: staying silent while others were speaking; letting others know we are following along by asking questions and giving encouragement; and being able to repeat what we’ve heard. The best listeners, they found, could repeat what they’d just been told nearly word for word.

Instead of spending time while other people are speaking formulating your next response, try focusing more on what other people are saying. Repeat ideas back to make sure you understand them. Try using phrases like, “It seems that what you’re saying is ... ” or “Can you clarify that a little more?”

Two thousand years ago, the Jewish sage asked who is “truly wise”? His answer was surprising: A wise person isn’t necessarily someone who’s amassed a lot of learning or who’s found one particular path to knowledge. Instead, a truly wise person is one “who learns from every person.”3 Real conversations allow us to get to know and learn from those around us. It’s up to us to try and make them count.