How do I have fascinating conversations? | Questions?

Some conversations are better than others – agreed?

Some people appear to have far more fascinating conversations than the rest of us – agreed?

Why is that? That’s the subject of this set of posts.

It’s worth a bit of a recap of where we have got to so far. In the first post I looked at some of the anti-patterns for fascinating conversations, sometimes looking at the opposite of something helps us to see the way to a positive outcome. Whilst each one of these anti-patterns were defined in the form of a person, I acknowledge that I’ve been every one of these people and I suspect I’m not alone in that. In the second post I looked at the impact of listening on these anti-patterns and in particular we looked at the power of reflective listening. I also introduced a new anti-pattern the Reflection Robot.

Imagination Time

You have been invited by a friend to a celebration. As you walk into the venue you recognise that there are people there from the various sections of your friend’s life, some are family, some are friends like yourself, some are work colleagues, there are also people there from the charity where they help out. You look around and see some people you know sat around a table, but there isn’t any room left at that table. As you look at the other tables you realise that there are only two seats left at a table where you aren’t sure that you know anybody, and what’s more you aren’t sure how these people relate to your friend. You can’t stay standing all night, so you and your partner sit down.

You turn to the person next to you and you say “Hi.”

They say “Hi.” in response.

Conversation protocol dictates that it’s your turn next. The other person is looking at you expecting an interaction.

You are convinced that the next words to come out of your mouth will significantly impact upon the rest of your evening.

What do you say? Do you make a statement? Do you ask a question? Do you play it safe and ask one of those questions that you know will get a safe response? Do you go bold and try to open the conversation to going somewhere interesting but risk looking a bit weird?

You decide to go safe “My name’s [name], how do you know [friend]?”

Inwardly you are disappointed by your lack of courage expecting a suitably safe response. There are a number of possible responses, but you know that the answer is likely to be a bit dull.

They respond “Hi [name], pleased to meet you, I’m William and [friend] and I work together. How do you know [friend]?”

This response has set the course of the conversation for the next few minutes. In the case of a work colleague my next response generally leads to quite a short conversation. When you tell people “I work at an IT Consultancy” their response is often quite short. I’ve thought about finessing the answer to this question to help people out a bit, but never settled on a set of words which enabled people to stay engaged in the conversation.

Questions are such an important part of conversations. Asking great questions is a skill. Actively listening, and asking great questions, are the basic ingredients of fascinating conversations.

What do we learn from the Anti-Patterns?

Let’s keep it a bit shorter this time, I think we are starting to get to know these anti-patterns now.

THE SOAKERS

Soakers are easy – they don’t ask question.

You ask them questions and they respond and before you know it you’ve run out of questions. If you’ve ever been the one asking the questions you’ll recognise how tiring this is.

I suspect that most Soakers can be turned around, but I don’t have a formula to achieve that and I’m rarely successful at it. What I will say is that I think that there is a link between the Soaker and the quality of the questions that we ask but I don’t want to make the questioner the one responsible for the entire interaction.

THE SMART BOMBERS

The Smart Bomber makes statements, they don’t ask questions. There’s a secondary challenge here though, quite often it’s difficult to know what the follow on question to the statement should be. The statement is so often so far from the flow of the conversation prior to it that no-one knows what questions to ask and quite often just stare at each other wondering what just happened.

THE AGENDA ENFORCERS

The Agenda Enforcer, does, at least, normally start with a question. The problem is the question being asked and timing of that question. Rather than going with the flow of the conversation that is already taking place, they want to push a conversation in a particular direction by enforcing their question into the flow.

THE DISTRACTED DISTRACTORS

Asking questions requires engagement in the conversation, if you are distracted, you aren’t going to give the level of engagement required. The question you are most likely to ask, as a Distracted Distractor is “Pardon? What did you say?”

THE NON-STOP TALKERS

One of the strange things about Non-Stop Talkers is that they do, sometimes, ask questions, what they don’t do is wait for responses.

“Do you remember when I fell down the stairs? I do it was so painful, I had to call for an ambulance. Do you remember how long it took for the ambulance to arrive? It must have been 2 hours. Did you stay here with me all that time? You did didn’t you…” I’ve put punctuation in here to make it readable, but often these people talk without punctuation.

THE GUESSING FINISHERS

I suppose that the Guessing Finisher is permanently asking question. Each time they guess a word they are really asking a question, they’ve not very good questions, but questions all the same.

THE REFLECTION ROBOTS

This is the new anti-pattern from last time. I did receive some feedback from someone who thought I was being a bit harsh on counsellors in this anti-pattern, this wasn’t my intention, actually it was the opposite of my intention. Rather than providing constructive reflection the Reflection Robot is using a reflection formula to bounce the question back without actually engaging in the conversation. The questions are there, but they are without feeling or interpretation. Good counsellors don’t use a formula for their reflective questions.

What have we learned?

The anti-patterns have told us a number of different things:

  • Some questions are more interesting than others.
  • Asking the right question for the situation is important.
  • Asking the right question at the right time is even better.
  • Even the right question at the right time isn’t always enough.
  • Don’t forget to listen to the responses.
  • There can’t be a formula for questions.

How do we know what a great question is?

This is one area where the internet is littered with advice, far too much of it to know where the golden nuggets are, so here are some observations from a mediocre asker of questions (me):

  • Be prepared – If you are going to have a fascinating conversation you need to start well. Starting well requires you to ask good questions from the beginning.
  • Be sensitive – The right question depends on the depth of the conversation. Most conversation don’t start deep, they become deep. If you force a conversation too deep too quickly it will stall. Shallow conversations generally aren’t fascinating.
  • Be natural – You need to bring something of yourself into the questions that you ask. The best quesitons are the ones that would fascinate you.
  • Be open – Yes or No answers don’t lead to a fascinating conversation. The trick is to learn to ask questions that solicit an open response. Example: “What is it that you love about your job?” generally results in a better response than “Do you love your job?” to which the answer is Yes or No.
  • Be reflective – Reflective listening is a skill and works well with reflective questions.
  • Be responsive – The best questions are often follow-on questions, by which I mean, questions that build upon the previous response.

If you’d prefer the advice of others try these on for size:

In summary I think that these two quotations will suffice:

“To be interesting, be interested.”

Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People

“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.”

Voltaire

Header Image: We live quite close to some gorgeous Lancashire countryside. The other night we decided to go for an explore and enjoy the sunset. The lambs in the fields were particularly excited to see us.

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