The physicist and theorist Heisenberg famously said, “What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.” In the realm of conversation, we can take this to mean that what we see when we engage with other people is not how they really are, but how they look in relation to how we talk to them, and the questions we pose. To put it bluntly, if you ask boring questions, you get boring answers. If you don’t ask any questions—well, the person in front of you starts to look like nothing more than a blank.
With all this focus on our own mindset, our preparedness and our ability to set the mood, we can forget that we always have at hand a very effective technique for reaching others—just ask them! Questions initiate and move conversations along particular paths. They give you some control and direction, they help you show interest, and they help you genuinely connect to and understand the person in front of you. In fact, questions are so important that it’s hard to imagine anyone getting far in conversations without them.
Here, we’ll focus on the emotional rather than informational impact of questions. You are not asking someone something because you literally don’t know the answer and want them to tell you. That’s what Google is for. In that sense, the answer can be important, sure, but it’s not all that’s important Simply asking in the first place, and the way you ask, can also send a powerful message. This chapter is about participating fully in conversations, and the backbone of quality participation is to think like a scientist like Heisenberg, and get curious.
The first thing to understand: not all questions are created equally. We can group exchanges, and therefore questions, into three levels, according to their underlying purpose. The first is to exchange information (or learn), the second to exchange feelings and emotions (or get others to bond with and like us), and the third is to exchange values (ditto). It’s worth knowing the difference, so you’re clear on what kind of conversation you’re having, and why. For example, the know-it-all from our first chapter makes a mistake in responding to other people’s appeals for an exchange of emotion and feelings, by supplying factual information instead. This is the person who completely misses the point by focusing on the details and not shared emotional content.
The second thing to understand is that we need to master both the asking and the answering of questions, at the right level. Doing so makes us more likeable, more empathetic, and more successfully at connecting to others. Let’s take a closer look at how to frame and interpret questions, to use them to their best advantage.
Just ask more. Chances are, you’re simply not asking enough questions. Even emotionally intelligent people can fail to show enough curiosity for others. Maybe you’re too busy thinking of yourself or stressed about the interaction (still egocentric!) or maybe you genuinely don’t care enough to know the answer. Maybe you think questions make you look nosy or worse, unsure of yourself. But the opposite is true.
Harvard research by Alison Wood Brooks and colleagues showed that when people were instructed to ask more questions in a conversation, people rated them as more likable than those who asked fewer questions. Speed daters were also found to agree more readily to a second date if their first date was filled with plenty of questions.
Don’t be worried about coming off badly; the truth is that questions unlock the next level of human connection, and may even be more powerful in situations where questions are not expected, such as job interviews. They show that you’re paying attention, that you care, that you’re engaging in the situation proactively, that you have your own values and expectations, that you appreciate the opinion of the other person (otherwise, you wouldn’t be asking for it) and that you have been listening. Not bad for a single line!
The Socratic Method
The kind of questions and the way they’re delivered matters, of course. And, unfortunately, it’s not just up to you how well the conversation goes—the other party has to be on board, too. There might be a person who asks a lot of questions paired with someone who asks none, or a pair where both ask a lot, or a pair where neither do. Each of these dynamics is going to feel different.
The main reason is that each person may share different conversational goals. If both parties have the goal of connecting and getting something done together, the atmosphere will be cooperative. If one or both parties is using the conversation to gain an upper hand, wheedle out information or boast, the interaction becomes competitive. If one or both have very minimal goals for the conversation, it may just fizzle out, and so on.
Understanding that people are coming from different places when they talk to one another helps you in two ways: firstly, you can identify what kind of conversation you’re in. If you’re stuck with someone hellbent on competition and grandstanding, there may be little you can do but be polite and find a way to exit, or at the least refrain from sharing any information that would put you at a disadvantage. On the other hand, knowing the kind of exchange you want to be in can help you actively cerate it with others.
Use follow-up questions. Questions are good, but follow-up questions are better, because they show you were listening, and care enough to keep learning more. Good follow-up questions zone in on an important fact the other person has just shared—if you simply spout off a string of unconnected questions it may feel like an interrogation. But run with what’s already been said and you tap into the conversation’s momentum and flow.
Use open-ended questions. The idea is that you genuinely want to learn more, so don’t go in with a very specific question that puts the other person on the spot or makes it seem like you’re only after a particular response. Avoid yes/no questions or leading questions (“So, what do like best about our glorious leader?”). You don’t people to feel as though your questions are there simply to extract sensitive information out of you, since this will cause them to clam up or distrust you—rightly!
Use questions to break the ice—gently. It may seem counterintuitive, but if you are curious about something, coming out and asking straight away can help cut through awkwardness faster than beating around the bush. You just have to do it right. No, you don’t want to offend people or make them uncomfortable, but a well-pitched question can have an interesting effect—people may feel that you are so curious and interested in their answer that you are willing to gently bend social etiquette. Most people find this flattering! At the very least, you can mask potentially nosy seeming questions with a little humor. Another idea is to proceed your question with a bit of sharing on your part, as though to communicate nonverbally, “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours!”
Here’s an example of these kinds of questions in action. Picture a quick break room conversation with the new recruit at work. They’re a little shy, but you push on and take your chance to start a conversation while you wait for your coffee to brew.
You: “Oh, hi there! You’re the new hire in accounting, right?”
Them: “Yup. It’s my first day.”
You: “Oh, awesome. They’re starting you off easy, I hope?” (A gentle question to gauge reaction only.)
Them: “Haha, yeah, I guess. I’m heading to IT right now to get my access code sorted out.”
You: “Go on, be honest, what do you think about our state-of-the-art break room? I love working here but me and this microwave do not get on.” (Breaking the ice, asking emotional/feeling questions rather than dwelling on the facts of what they’re up to in the accounting department. Plus, a playful complaint is hard not to respond to.)
Them: “Oh, it’s not so bad! You should see mine at home. I think its suicidal, actually.”
You: “Ah, great, so you have experience with depressed appliances; you’ll fit right in. So, you said you’re on your way to IT. Have you met Rob yet?” (Follow-up question.)
Them: “Rob? I don’t think so . . .”
You: “Rob’s great, you’ll love him. I’ve got to go, but good luck with your microwave! Hey, I should ask, do you live locally? The commute’s out here can be hell . . .” (Another follow-up question.)
Them: “Oh yeah, I’m just down the road, in [wherever].”
You: Oh, cool. You should come hang out with some of us on Fridays. We meet up at the bar on the corner . . .”
. . . and so on.
In this conversation, questions are helping everything flow more easily and comfortably. They all seem natural and good-natured, and likely make the new recruit feel respected and paid attention to. In just a two-minute exchange, a great impression is made.
When asking questions, be casual, take your lead from others, and pay attention to group dynamics. Mix up the kinds of questions you ask, but always be mindful about the match between you—are you sharing information, feelings, or values? Respond accordingly, or be prepared to gently try shift the frame with your question.
“Hey, how’s it going?” (If said quickly and carelessly, not really a question, just polite conversational protocol—a similarly offhand question or response is probably enough.)
“So you were just released from prison?” (A request for information—possibly more, but this person likely wants to know the precise factual answer.)
“What do you think about the blue? The red looks better doesn’t it?” (This is not a request for information—blue or red is irrelevant. The person is unsure which to choose and needs reassurance, or for you to share your own opinion. This is a request for an emotional response.)
“Where do you see our relationship going?” (A request not just for feelings, but broader values, such as whether marriage is important to them. If someone simply responds with how they’re feeling right now, it’s likely not going to be perceived as a satisfying or complete answer.)
What about when you respond to questions? As we’ve seen, it’s a good idea to be open, and give more information than was asked for. Take your time in answering. Listen for what the person is actually looking for from you—are they just passing the time and being polite, or do they genuinely want to know more? Adjust your answer accordingly.
The Conversational Narcissism Ratio
Have you ever quietly waited for someone to stop speaking, thinking all the while about what you would say the moment they shut up? If so, you’ve likely been guilty of conversational narcissism! It is the inability to put aside your own internal monologue completely, and focus on what the other person is thinking or saying. It leads to the same outcome of dueling monologues, where conversation hasn’t really happened at all—rather, you have two people talking at each other instead of with each other.
It's also a big reason why people fail to ask questions—or listen properly to their answers.
So, to start with, improve your listening skills by being vigilant about the ways in which craving attention can make you a worse conversationalist. This takes some conscious awareness and also a little honesty. We can ask what our true intentions and motivations are for entering into conversations, in general and specifically with people we know. Are we reaching out to others because we want the validation of their attention? Because we want the feeling of proving ourselves right and another wrong? Because we feel we have to for some reason?
Do we see conversation as a battle, or a game, or a dance? Perhaps we see conversation as an opportunity to show ourselves off, or share what interests us. Whatever your reasons are, though, you probably notice that they usually concern only you . . . and don’t spare a thought for the other person sharing the conversation with you! How many of us can honestly say that our goal is to see and understand the other person, rather than just to have ourselves seen and understood?
The idea is not to always seek to turn attention to yourself. Conversations should be thought of not as a means to win attention, but to share it enjoyably with someone else. The goal is not competition for the floor, but cooperation with an ally. The purpose is to collaborate, not express solely. The aim is to learn, not teach, and so on. For some of us, this may require a complete re-tooling of what we seek when we want to be social.
After an ineffective conversation, people may feel depleted, bored, or even more alone. Good conversations, on the other hand, can be things of beauty, allowing both participants to create between them something bigger than the sum of its parts. One study even discovered that people valued being listened to and heard so much that, in an experiment, were actually willing to pay to enjoy the feeling. That’s because that feeling of being acknowledged, heard and respected is incredibly valuable. Offering that feeling to someone else is just as rewarding, if not more so, than experiencing it for yourself. The truth is that if you prioritize the other person in this way, you often end up with a mutually fulfilling conversation anyway, without actually trying.
Listening well requires that you suspend your own self-interest and ego and gracefully allow someone else to shine.
It’s now time to get self-conscious and introspective. Sociologist Charles Derber has studied this phenomenon extensively and believes that this form of conversational narcissism can occur without people even being aware it’s going on. It can be easy to imagine that conversational narcissists are the stereotypical loudmouths who dominate conversation—but it’s far subtler than this. It turns out that the situation can turn on a single word choice. He articulated what he called support responses and shift responses, and how they can subtly pervade our everyday vocabulary.
Derber explains what he calls “initiatives” in conversation—which can be attention giving or attention seeking, the latter of which can be further divided into active or passive. This is a little like our tennis analogy—in tennis, we are always either returning the ball or receiving it from the other player, enacting a give and take. In a conversation, what moves back and forth is awareness and attention. These can bounce between people, or pool on one side of the conversation. For our purposes, you can guess which kinds of behaviors we want to orient toward. Let’s look at some examples of both in conversation.
Let’s first look at support responses, which are what they sound like: words or behaviors that support the expression of the other person in the conversation. For the active, attention-giving variety, a “support response” maintains attention on the speaker and their topic—for example, asking a question about what’s been said. Support responses can be simple acknowledgements (“Oh really?” “Uh huh.”), positively supporting (“That’s great!”), or in question form (“What did you say then?”). You can imagine the other person’s story is a balloon that everyone else is trying to keep aloft, jumping in here and there to bounce it back up into the air. For instance:
“I love French films.”
Response: “Which is your favorite?”
The above response only exists to maintain attention and awareness on the original speaker. The response doesn’t interject any new information of its own, but encourages the flow of attention already unfolding. Obviously, this can make people feel, well, supported! This is a great way to validate your conversation partner, let them know you’re listening, and send a strong message that you value what they’re saying and want to hear more.
The “shift response,” however, is an active attention-seeking response that shifts the attention to the other person, in other words back to themselves. It’s an act of grabbing the spotlight and pointing it in the opposite direction. With a shift response, the flow of attention and awareness is suddenly diverted elsewhere. What’s going on when you see two people vying for attention and talking over one another? Their dialogue is made exclusively of aggressive shift responses!
“I love French films.”
Response: “Yeah? I’ve never cared much about movies. The other day, actually, I saw this thing at the cinema . . .”
This isn’t to say that shift responses are always wrong—in context, they can work, especially if the other person subtly reclaims attention again. Sometimes it might even behoove you to use more shift responses to grab some of the spotlight, or make your feelings known. But how much are you using them?
A shift response is a great idea if you want to move the chat along to another topic, or inject some fresh energy or ideas into the conversation. It’s a bad idea if you are simply trying to derail the existing conversation in your favor, so you can say what you want to say. Many people get together and talk this way, each announcing a different personal anecdote that begins with a shift response.
If you have two people with poor listening skills, and both are hell-bent on shift responses, you end up with a wrestling match for attention, rather than a conversation. Maybe both parties are satisfying their lust for expression, but their gas tanks for being heard are running on empty. You may not notice if you are locked in this type of battle, but from the outside looking in, observing this kind of interaction can be curious and confusing.
Moreover, if a bad conversationalist (someone who continually uses shift responses) is paired with a very empathetic listener (someone who continually uses support responses), one party may well feel as though they’re having a good talk because the other person is consistently offering them support responses, while that person actually wants to jump off a bridge because the conversation is turning into an awkward pseudo-lecture on the other person’s life and beliefs.
What about passive conversational narcissism? Naturally, some people are still quite aware of social norms and etiquette and so will vie for attention in subtler ways. One way of doing this is to fail to offer support responses, waiting till the other person’s thread dies away and you can take the limelight. Here, you are hoping that the other person runs out of steam so you can finally get your word in. It is like sitting in a tree and waiting for the prey to get tired and go to sleep—you know it will happen eventually, so you passively bide your time.
Have you been part of a conversation where the other person didn’t offer any support responses, even a quaint “Oh really?” or “Uh-huh”? You’re not quite sure whether they’ve taken in what you’ve said, and that may be intentional on their part. It may have been a case of passive conversational narcissism. It’s like letting that balloon drop to the floor. You don’t have to do much to make someone else feel that what they’re saying hasn’t really “landed”!
Most of us are taught that it’s polite to not ramble on, to take your turn and then rest, and to share space in conversations. Fine, this person will follow those basic rules. But they sure won’t encourage their conversation partner to speak more, lest it cut into their own speaking time! A lack of (genuine!) feedback from the other person can quickly make someone feel they ought to stop speaking—and this is where the conversational narcissist steps back into the picture.
Though it’s tempting to try to catch other people in the act of conversational narcissism, its far more productive to learn to notice it in yourself and guard against it. You can’t control what others do, but you can control your actions and how good of a listener you are. After all, that is the goal of this book. For the other purpose, you may want to seek a book on persuasion or hypnosis.
The irony is it’s often those who are able to listen well, to step aside, and to take a genuine interest in their conversation partners who become people we think of as most interesting, charismatic and worthy of our attention in the first place. So the purported goal of conversational narcissism (making darn sure that people know things about you) isn’t even satisfied. Oops. Luckily, there are a few guidelines to battle these unconscious obstacles you’ll undoubtedly face.
Balance your needs and desires with other people’s.
To do this, you first need to be aware of your focus and where it’s going. Pay attention to how the airtime is being distributed. Is one person doing all the talking? Is there a back-and-forth? This requires more than just playing at being interested in another person’s life—you genuinely need to forget yourself for a moment and engage fully, and honestly, in what someone else is saying. Stop thinking about your response for the future, and pay attention to what someone is currently saying to you.
This means no rushing in to explain or frame what they’ve said so that it relates back to you again. Give more supportive responses, and guard against constantly referring every topic back to yourself. Ask questions to invite the other person to say more. If you take attention for a while, enjoy it—but volley it back again. Like we were taught as children: It’s good to share!
“As you were talking, it made me think about this experience I had once, where XYZ. That made me wonder, did you find that XYZ was the case as well?” A person saying this demonstrates that they’re willing to share the conversation, rather than hog it all for themselves.
Think about ego, power, self-esteem, and control.
Those who seem most boastful in a conversation, who jealously guard attention or speak over others, are often those who feel most insecure in themselves. Their need to control the conversation comes from a hunger for attention and approval. If you find yourself using conversations as a platform to boost your ego, feel better about yourself, or be witnessed and supported by others, your work may be to learn to be comfortable taking the back seat for a change. The paradox is that people who seem most likeable and confident are those who don’t appear to be making frantic efforts to dominate others’ attention.
What Would Conan Do and Curiosity
Let’s return to an idea we touched on earlier—the idea of playfulness and curiosity in conversation. Curiosity plays a huge role in the way we receive others and thus how they receive us. You can be the most charming, funniest person in the room, but if you aren’t interested and curious about the person across from you, there simply won’t be a connection. Why would there be? It’s more like a one-man show than a conversation. Big surprise, it turns out that we care if the person across from us is engaged or scanning the room behind us and looking for someone better to talk to.
Staying curious is a difficult proposition because, at first glance, most people might seem uninteresting or unworthy of paying attention to. This is harsh, but it is in fact behind a lot of people’s reason for “hating small talk.” This is undoubtedly the biggest hurdle for most of us—even if you don’t consciously think it, you subconsciously believe that someone is simply not worth being curious about. You think that even if you dig deeper you won’t find anything worth your time, so why bother in the first place?
It’s true that, at first glance, very few of us are compelling. You included. But acting on this impulse will limit your communication and keep you right where you are. We are cutting off people’s ability to be interesting and compelling because we don’t give them a chance. In the end, it doesn’t particularly matter what you believe. Just start to build the habit of curiosity, and eventually it won’t matter if you think people are worthy or not (they are). You’ll be able to find the interesting aspects in just about anyone, and that’s what counts.
To do so, I’ve found that the absolute best mindset to emulate is that of a talk show host—Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, Conan O’Brien, whoever your favorite is, they all do the same thing. Just ask yourself what they would do if you’re struggling for what curiosity looks like and how you can wield it. Conan O’Brien happens to my favorite, so let’s think about the traits he embodies in a conversation with a guest on his show.
Visualize his studio. He’s got a big open space, and he is seated at a desk. His guest is seated at a chair adjacent to the desk, and it’s literally like they exist in a world of their own. When Conan has a guest on his show, that guest is the center of his world for the next ten minutes. They are the most interesting person he has ever come across, everything they say is spellbinding, he is insatiably curious about their stories, and he reacts to anything they say with an uproarious laugh and an otherwise exaggerated reaction that they were seeking. He is charmingly positive and can always find a humorous spin on a negative aspect of a story.
His sole purpose is to make his guest comfortable on the show, encourage them to talk about themselves, and ultimately make them feel good and look good. In turn, this makes them share revealing things they might not otherwise share and create a connection and chemistry with him that is so important for a talk show. The viewers at home are desperate to learn about this celebrity guest, so Conan acts as a proxy for their curiosity. Also, the viewers can tell in an instant if either party is mailing it in or faking it, so Conan’s job literally depends on his ability to use his curiosity to connect on a deeper level.
Even with grumpy or more quiet guests, he is able to elevate their energy levels and attitudes simply by being intensely interested in them (at an energy level slightly above theirs) and encouraging them by giving them the great reactions that they seek. It’s almost as if he plays the game “How little can I say to get the most out of people?” It’s a non-obvious talent that is worth its weight in gold—and it’ll make the person receive this attention feel like solid gold!
Of course, in your life, you may be faced with those people that are like pulling teeth to talk to. A little bit of friendly encouragement and affirmation can make even the meekest clam open up. Numerous questions, directing the conversation toward them, and the feeling that you actually care are also integral. Imagine the relief you can create at dreaded networking events. People like those who like them, so when you react the way they want, it encourages them to be more outgoing and open with you.
Other talk show hosts would later go on the record lamenting how often they disliked his guests and how boring he found the actors and actresses that he would be forced to speak to. But the fact that this is never really detected is a testament to how highly trained his habit of curiosity was. He started by making a conscious decision to be curious, built the habit, and engaged his guests easily; do you think his guests could tell if he was interested or not? Never.
Curiosity allows people to feel comfortable enough to speak freely beyond a superficial level—because you are demonstrating that you care and that you will listen when they open up. People won’t be inclined to reveal their secret thoughts if they think it will be met with apathy, after all. So whether you have to fake it till you make it, Conan O’Brien is who your mindset and attitude should feel like.
It’s a banal and often-used quote, but for good reason. Dale Carnegie said it best: “You can make more friends in two months by becoming truly interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”
In case Conan O’Brien’s curiosity still isn’t coming naturally to you, here are some more specific patterns of thought you can use to improve your people skills.
I wonder what they are like? When you start to wonder about the other person, it changes your perspective on them completely. This is an inkling of curiosity. You start to care about them—not only about their shallow traits, such as their occupation or how their day is going, but what motivates them and what makes them act in the way they do.
Having a sense of wonder about someone is one of the most powerful mindsets you can have because it makes you want to scratch your itch. Scratching the itch of curiosity will become secondary to everything else because you simply want to know about the other person. Here, you don’t have to like them, exactly—it goes deeper than that. Just perceive them, as much of them as you possibly can, and genuinely allow yourself to be amazed by that.
Suppose you had a sense of wonder about computers as a child. You were probably irritating with how many questions you asked anyone that seemed to have knowledge about computers. What kind of attention span are you going to devote to computers, and what kind of questions are you going to ask? You are going to skip the small talk interview questions and get right down to the details because it’s what you care and wonder about.
Keeping the mindset of wonderment will completely change the way you interact with people because you will suddenly care, and much of the time, we don’t notice that we don’t care about the person we are talking to. You’ll dig deeper and deeper until you can put together a picture of what you are wondering about.
It's important to note here that you need to be sincere about it. Conan is a pro who gets a salary from the job he does, but for the rest of us, it’s so much better to foster a genuine interest in others rather than fake it. That boring person you’re chatting to? Challenge yourself and your assumptions about them. They have a history, secrets, hopes, dreams, unexpected talents—what are they?
What can they teach me? Don’t read this from the perspective of attempting to gain what you can from someone. Read it from the perspective of seeing others as being people worthy of your attention. Everyone has valuable knowledge, whether it applies to your life or not. Everyone is great at something, and everyone is a domain expert in something that you are not, no matter how small or obscure. People’s perspectives have innate value, and just by learning about them, we are enriched.
The main point is to ignite an interest in the other person as opposed to an apathetic approach. Imagine if you were a huge skiing junkie and you met someone that used to be a professional skier. They may have even reached the Olympics in their prime.
What will follow? You’ll be thrilled by what you can potentially learn and gain from the other person, and that will guide the entire interaction. Again, there will be a level of interest and engagement if you view others as worthy of talking to. But you’d never know unless you dug.
Whether we like to admit it or not, sometimes we feel some people are not worth our time. It’s a bad habit, and this line of thinking is one of the first steps toward breaking it. Everyone is worth our time, but you won’t be able to discover it if you don’t put in the work. At the very least, most people have had interesting or noteworthy experiences in life. Become curious and you just may find that your grandma’s Bungo friend was an exotic dancer during the war, that the friend you knew for twenty years has a secret passion for vintage magazines, and your work colleague actually used to be a missionary in the Congo before she had kids. Who knew!
What do we have in common? This is an investigation into the life experiences you share with someone. It instantly makes them more engaging and interesting—because we feel that they are more similar to us! It may sound a bit egotistical, but we are undoubtedly more captivated by people that share the same views and interests as us, and they us.
It may even elevate people, especially if we are surrounded by people different from us. For instance, if you discovered that a new stranger was born in the same hospital as you were, despite being in a different country, you would instantly feel more open to them. This person must share similar worldviews, values, and humor. You now have a positive bias toward them, actively seeking out more good in them. But you wouldn’t have discovered that if you didn’t make an attempt at digging.
You are going to be on a hunt, and you will ask the important questions that get you where you want to be. You might jump from topic to topic, or you might dive in and ask directly.
Perhaps it’s just because you will have something to fixate on besides talking for talking’s sake, but these attitudes will drastically change how you approach people. Curiosity can still be hard, which is why my final suggestion for creating curiosity is to make a game of it. Your goal is to learn as much about the other person as possible. Alternatively, assume there is something extremely thrilling and exciting about the other person and make it your quest to find it. Eventually, you’ll find what you’re looking for.
The next time you go out to a café or store, put these attitudes to the test with the captive audience of the baristas or cashiers you come across—the lucky few who are paid to be nice to you. Do you perceive these workers to be below you, or do you treat them differently than you would treat a good friend? Do you have a sense of wonderment and curiosity about them? What do you think they can teach you, and what do you have in common with them?
Do you tend to ask the baristas or cashiers about their day and actually care about their answer? If not, do you think you’ll be able to simply “turn it on” when you’re around people you care about? Practice your mindsets about the people around you. It’s the easiest practice you’ll have because you don’t have to lift a finger, but it drastically transforms the quality of relationships you’ll create.
• In order to interact and engage more fully in conversations, we need to work against our not-so-useful habits and learn better ones.
• A non-negotiable habit is becoming a master at using questions. The right questions help people feel closer to us, communicate our attention and care, share our competence, show that we’re aware and paying attention, deepen intimacy, guide the conversation, and make us more trustworthy.
• All exchanges, and hence all questions, are typically on one of three possible levels: those exchanging factual information, those exchanging feelings and emotions, and those communicating deeper values. In social situations, you’ll lean more heavily on the last two, but a good conversation works when people have similar conversational goals and are matched in the level they’re interacting on.
• Conversational narcissism is an impediment to curiosity, engagement, and good question asking. Whether unconscious or conscious, this usually results from us placing something other than connection with the other person as our goal for conversation, i.e. to brag, to defend, to compete.
• We can reduce our own conversational narcissism by using questions. Follow-up questions are very effective, as are open-ended questions that don’t make people uncomfortable, but may gently push on the barrier or normal etiquette.
• Just as a role model can be a guide and inspiration for your own behavior, a model can also help you stay curious when you talk to others. Talk show hosts are experts and placing their conversation partners front and center, so we can ask, what would they do? Usually, the answer is “treat my guest like the most interesting person in the whole universe.”
• Curiosity needs to be genuine. We all have a bias against others sometimes, assuming they’re not very interesting, but unless we ask, we won’t learn about their more fascinating sides. Assume that everyone has something to teach you, and foster a genuine inquisitiveness into the details of their world. I guarantee you will not be disappointed.