In college, I had dinner with a friend named Donnie. He wasn’t much older than me but was certainly more mature — although that wasn’t particularly difficult at the time :)
I looked up to him in quite a few ways. But one thing that impressed me, maybe above everything else, was his ability to engage in conversation wherever we were. It didn’t matter what room we walked into, or the people in the room, Donnie was always quick to make new friends and start new relationships.
People just seemed to like him immediately after meeting him.
So, at dinner, I asked him how he was able to do that so effortlessly.
His answer to my question changed the way I engage in conversation ever since. And even to this day, I consider it the greatest conversation advice I’ve ever received.
When I asked him how he was so good at talking to people, he said this, “Oh, it’s easy. Just ask a lot of questions. Ask about their family, their job, their hobbies, their past… anything really. People love talking about themselves.”
I immediately put this idea into practice. And found it works incredibly well—in every circumstance and interaction. Simply ask questions.
Years later, when reading the incredibly popular book by Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People, I found the advice repeated:
So if you aspire to be a good conversationalist, be an attentive listener. To be interesting, be interested. Ask questions that other persons will enjoy answering. Encourage them to talk about themselves and their accomplishments. Remember that the people you are talking to are a hundred times more interested in themselves and their wants and problems than they are in you and your problems.
I still apply his advice today whenever I meet someone new or am catching up with a friend.
And I have found there is a dual benefit to the approach. Not only does asking questions result in great conversation, it benefits me as well.
First, it results in a selfless attitude.
To begin the practice of asking questions, you need to make the conversation not about you. Every time you ask a question, by definition, you are shifting the attention away from you and toward the other person.
Asking questions forces selflessness onto us.
You can’t hold a desire to draw attention to your own accomplishments or stories while genuinely inquiring about the other person’s. Rather than looking for opportunities to proclaim our own interests, the attention is focused on theirs.
Second, it helps us become better listeners.
Asking good questions requires good ears and a focused attention.
Anyone can ask questions (and that’s always a good place to start). But asking great questions will require you to be a good listener.
The more you practice this approach to conversation, the more you learn this skill.
Focused attention can lead to follow up questions. It can help you remember important details about the other person. And may even help you understand their emotions or passion related to the topic they are discussing.
Third, it results in better learning.
Everyone we meet has a backstory of experience. And the more questions we ask, the more we learn about the world. Because we learn about more than just the person, we learn about humanity.
Everyone wants a friend who cares about them (selfless), who pays attention to them (good listener), and can understand the world and their point of view (learner).
Asking questions provides that opportunity.
Even all these years later, it’s still the greatest conversation advice I’ve ever received. What about you?
I really agree with the original post and then read a few dozen of the comments, looking for ideas on GREAT questions. I was dismayed at the number of responders that complained about people not asking questions in return. I don’t think you can approach every conversation with a new person as though it’s a do-or-die effort to find your next best friend. Some times I’m just trying to get through a meet and greet or a cocktail party where I know few people. I’d rather listen to people talk about themselves than be standing on the edge of the room with no one. YES, so many people are desperate to have someone authentically listen, so it costs nothing to give that to them. That said, I almost never initiate a conversation while seated on an airplane. There’s no way to gracefully exit from an over-talker. I am also concerned that a “new rule” of etiquette is to avoid asking someone what they do; that is puts too much pressure on people on people who don’t work or have a career or a hobby. What’s a good alternative?
These are wise insights, Denise! I have tried to move away from the “what do you do for work?” question early on in getting to know someone as a step to move away from assuming everyone is in the workforce. Obviously if they talk about their job, I’ll ask follow ups. But one of my go-to questions has become “what are you up to in life?” to avoid assuming folks are working/in school/retired/etc. It was clunky at first because people weren’t expecting it. But I’ve quickly come to appreciate it, the responses I get, and the ripple effect is has on people to ask a similar question when getting to know someone.
I feel this is a double edged sword. I always am asking about the other person and they are happy to talk and talk. But they never ask me anything back, leaving me unsatisfied. And I feel that they never remember who I am because they know nothing about me.
I think it has to be more of bi-directional.
People love to talk about themselves and their lives… It’s very rare that you’ll encounter someone who, either knows how to carry on a conversation, the “ebb and flow” of it, or who have such an air of “self importance” that they think everyone else needs to know what they think… It can be exhausting just to find someone who sincerely wants to know about you and your life. I agree with Joshua’s original post but sometimes I think we might be enabling those people by always doing the “heavy lifting” in the conversation. Not that there’s anything special about me or my life, but it would be nice to occasionally bump into someone who’s genuinely interested in seeing other than themselves. That’s a rarity these days.
It is rare…and my belief is that modeling great conversation behaviors is the best way to have people want to emulate it. If not in the current conversation, then perhaps the next one…
Sadly, I must confess that I am losing my social, conversational skills. I guess it was about 20 years ago someone told me I could talk to the devil…meaning that I could talk with anyone. I had learned that you just have to ask questions until you hit The Topic that your conversation companion feels most comfortable/ knowledgeable. Yes, this can be doing the “heavy lifting” but I would rather listen and interject where I could than sitting in uncomfortable silence. Your last two sentences hit home for me. I met someone who I really liked and hoped we could become friends. She and her husband had known my husband for many years. The three of them totally enjoyed reconnecting and I was learning things about them (aka questions asked). After a few meetings we were sitting outside and I was asked a personal question because “I don’t know a thing about YOU.” I was literally dumbstruck for a few moments. Yes, it a rarity to encounter someone who’s genuinely interested in who you are.
I like to read all the comments. When I recently returned to work, a woman who remarked to me, said after the discussion we had about vacation dates, “I’m glad you’re here.” We need the people left to do the job. I tend to assume. It’s often much simpler than that.
What happens if both people do the same, if both want to ask a lot of questions? Is that the “perfect” conversation? Asking many questions and volunteering little about oneself could be seen as being just nosy or secretive. I’ve had many conversations where people ask me little or nothing and there’s no momentum in the conversation so that seems to be a bad match.
Dionne Adamitis says
I understand. That happens a lot to me, too. I find that most of the world is very needy, shy or lonely. So I try to take on the roll of a “host” telling myself that it is my goal to help the other person feel at ease. This helps me take the focus off of my own feeling of shyness or wanting to connect. I try to ask questions with follow-up questions so that they know I have been listening. But the $64,000 question is “Are they going to reciprocate?’ If they don’t, but seem uneasy, I give them grace that they just don’t know what to ask and try to give them another turn at bat by asking them more questions. If they don’t even try, I will tell them a funny story about myself to loosen them up. If they don’t respond, I try to find someone else to talk to. After all, I can’t play their side of the tennis court.
Speaking of a tennis court, when explaining to my husband the unspoken rules of conversation etiquite, I find that a tennis match is a helpful analogy. It is rude to just let the person on the other side of the net do all the work. One must listen to what the other person is saying and ask good follow-up questions to both move the conversation forward and also show that one is paying attention. I wish someone would have explained this to me growing up. It would have helped me so much.
Another thing I believe is a good thing to keep in mind is to notice how many people in a group are talking (say that there are four people talking) and then only talk 1/4 of the time. If someone noticeably goes over their limit, I call it “they won’t let go of the mike”. It is surprising how many people are not self-aware of how long that they talk and won’t let others”play”.
I agree, this is how I get people to talk to me. But you do have to accept most people will not ask you questions and that is FINE. It is like a gift, you should not expect anything in return. Also, it is a kindness that someone you have never met would take time out of their day to talk to YOU. Honest compliments go a long way as well.
However, in a recent episode, I discovered that the other half of the conversation was upset that I never divulged much as they chose NOT to ask questions. They assumed I would open up.
Very interesting article! I am in introvert and have always struggled with conversations with people. But marrying an extrovert has helped that, and I learned a lot from the book The 9 Arts of Spiritual Conversations, that focuses on practicing noticing people, listening, asking good questions, loving and welcoming them, among other things. This helped me refine my noticing, asking questions and listening skills! (And yes, once in a while I run into those who really don’t care to know anyone else!). It’s a good read! the9Arts.com