THE BLOG
04/29/2016 04:20 pm ET Updated Apr 30, 2017

6 Tips for Nailing the First Date Conversation

Dating apps are useful ways of finding love in today's world. Many successful long-term relationships began with a click and a swipe. But it's also possible to waste a lot of time hoping for miracles. Many people regret spending precious time hoping they can change a frog into a prince. Dating in the digital age is hard enough.

How do you make the most of that all-important first date by having a conversation that balances hope and reality so you don't waste precious time on a relationship that will ultimately go nowhere?

As a psychotherapist, talking to strangers is my trade. Each time I interview a new patient we are both trying to decide whether we should take our relationship to the next level. Therapy is an intimate relationship that flourishes if the chemistry is right. Do I think I can be helpful? Does the patient feel comfortable with me? Are we a good match? I might be a perfectly good therapist, but if there is no chemistry, we won't get very far.

Many of my patients are also interviewing for intimacy but of a personal kind. They courageously go online seeking a relationship that can grow and develop into a special bond. But how do you make the most of that first encounter to decide whether a real relationship is a possibility? How do you balance practicality with sensitivity? Patience with self-interest?

Here are six tips for making the most of a first date conversation so you know whether there should be a second date. A sound approach based on observation, curiosity and preparation can turn a first date into a reliable measure of the potential for future love.

1. Talk less. When we're anxious we over-talk. That's less time for getting to know someone. People usually start with small-talk, but as they relax, they tend to open up. Minimize chatter after the first 5 minutes. Don't fill every pregnant pause with the first thing that pops into your mind. Leave space for something interesting and unexpected to emerge. Embrace moments of just being together and see what you get.

2. Hold the gaze. Don't lock eyes in that creepy way, but keep your gaze soft, steady and focused on your date. Imagine your eyes are conveying the message "I'm interested in you." With your eyes and body language, convey a sense of openness, safety and warmth. Remember, you are trying to get below the surface, so create an environment that invites true feelings, even vulnerabilities, to be explored.

3. Assess emotional maturity. On a first date, you want to get a sense of someone's emotional maturity because that's critical to a healthy future relationship. Try asking "what's most important to you in your life right now?" If they're still carrying grudges from the past, or trying to find the next perfect job or apartment, you might think twice about investing too much time waiting for the ink on this puppy to dry.

4. Tell the truth. But "tell it slant." These lines by Emily Dickenson remind us that honest communication also requires tact. How do you talk about your divorce or a prior break-up? Frame your story tactfully to balance honestly and openness with personal privacy and circumspection. Don't over-share, but don't be afraid to be honest about your emotional baggage. Notice how your date talks about his past. People who are overly self-conscious about their past relationships usually have something to hide. Think about maintaining a balance between personal boundaries and openness. The overall message should be "I have loved before and am not afraid to love again". Dissing your ex is a no-no and a warning sign.

5. Access feelings. Don't be shy about asking your date about the feelings that led up to important decisions in their life. A subtle but effective approach is by asking "why" questions: "Why did you choose teaching as a career?" "Why did you move to New York?" Listen for whether the answers are concrete or emotional. "Teaching gives me summers off" might indicate concreteness while "I love children" discloses a strong emotional core.

6. Rehearse your exit. Whether you feel that time spent on Date #1 was worthwhile or not, prepare a graceful exit. Smile, say thank you and tell them how nice it was to spend time together. The date may have been disappointing, but never leave feeling disappointed in yourself. Rome wasn't built in a day, and this took less than an hour.