MsDora, former teacher and Certified Christian Counselor shares tips for smooth relationships with friends and encounters with strangers.
Keep a Conversation Going by Asking the Right Questions
Do you remember being part of a group when the conversation became a monologue or simply died?
In such situations, the mood becomes so uncomfortable that it even feels awkward to leave. The right questions can be the perfect communication tool to prevent or restore this unwanted situation. Good questions make good conversation.
People want to talk about themselves and give their opinions, but they want to be asked so that they do not appear pretentious. People also want to hear others talk about themselves and give their opinions; they just don’t want to ask in a manner that makes them seem overly inquisitive.
In a curious conversation (for the purpose of knowing someone better) there are some areas which both questioners and listeners like to explore. Whether the conversation is between two or ten, the challenge is for questioners to be tactful, and for responders to be interesting. As long as people keep talking, everyone can keep learning and have fun simultaneously.
A well-composed conversation is one in which all are asking questions of each other, listening to learn, and building on each other’s views and stories.
— Jon Mertz
Conversation Topics and Questions
Below are six sample questions on topics people like to talk about. Bear in mind that answers on these topics are opinions. No debate is necessary to determine whether they are wrong or right. Unless there are blatant mistakes with life-threatening consequences, let the conversation roll.
1. Personal Strengths
- What type of activity are you really good at?
The question seems to be about activities, but gives a chance to highlight skills. They may choose to talk about activities at work, at home, or volunteer efforts. Follow-up questions will be useful to (1) show that you are listening and (2) nudge the responder into a related area you may wish to hear about. This is true for all the questions.
2. Favorite People
- Who are some of the folks you really admire?
The responders get to select whom they want to mention: celebrities, people who influenced them, friends or family members. It is wise to give them that opportunity. Imagine asking specifically about parents or teachers when mentioning them brings bad or sad memories.
3. Favorite Places
- What are some of the places which have special significance for you?
No need to ask if they have or have not traveled. If they did, they will tell you; if they did not they may talk about places they would like to visit. The question also gives them a chance to talk about familiar places. They may be very proud of their birthplace.
4. Favorite Causes
- What health, charitable, or any other causes do you promote or support?
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This question may provide opportunity to mention religion and politics, but if the answers become too detailed or uninteresting, steer the conversation with questions about other causes. Stories about personal involvement in causes often lead to mention of accolades and awards. Express commendation.
- Some people think that our society is undergoing a change in values. What are your views on that?
The responder has the opportunity to choose which values they want to talk about—the ones they believe in or the ones that are being trampled. The answer may be a window into the personal standing of the responder on issues like etiquette, morality and spirituality.
6. Hobbies and Interests
- What have you done lately in the line of hobbies or interests?
Some people have difficulty naming hobbies if they are not presently pursuing interests. “Lately” has no limit on the time period; they can refer to activities as far back as they remember. Still, the answer gives a clue as to what they like, and perhaps the level of their passion.
Guidelines for Good Questions
The first suggestion in the table below is demonstrated in the questions above. The others are reminders of what is acceptable in a good conversation. With little effort, they will soon be come a habit.
|When It Is Your Turn to Ask||When It Is Your Turn to Answer|
Give opportunity for more than one answer category.
Choose your answer from the area most comfortable for you.
Judge from previous answers if you need to change the next one.
Ask permission to change the question slightly if doing that suits you better.
You can ask different people to answer the same question.
Feel free to ask the same question of the person who asked it.
Smile and be pleasant. Don’t sound like you’re giving a quiz for a grade.
Tell a good story. Avoid irrelevant facts and spice up the answer with gestures.
After you ask the question, turn off your cell phone and pay attention to the answer.
While answering, turn off your cell phone; look at the other persons in the group.
Further Benefits of Good Questions
“The only reason why we ask other people how their weekend was is so we can tell them about our own weekend.” ―Chuck Palahniuk, Invisible Monsters
If telling our story makes us feel better, and we think that the other person will feel good hearing it, we have good enough reason to ask a question.
Still, the following benefits are additional good reasons. Both the questioner and responder benefit from good questions which:
- Sharpen communication skills
- Steer the conversation in a specific direction
- Reveal the level of participants' interest
- Give a clue about conversational attributes like listening, patience and cooperation
- Clarify matters on questions not asked before.
Not only do they contribute to effective dialogue. At the end of the conversation participants can assess their performance and formulate ways to improve. There is a demand for experts in the art of asking good questions.
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© 2013 Dora Weithers