Pointless Questions

March 7th, 2024 | conversation
Pointless Questions

Excerpted with permission from Chapter 5 of  “The Art of Captivating Conversation: How to Be Confident, Charismatic, and Likable in Any Situation” by Patrick King

You’ve probably heard a lot of advice on how open-ended questions are great for getting people to talk about themselves. That’s true to an extent.

However, can you come up with a quick answer for the following question: “What do you like to do for fun?”

I bet not, and there’s a very good reason. It’s too open-ended. It’s so open-ended that it becomes vague, and when something is vague, people become confused. They aren’t sure what kind of answer you are looking for, what the context is, or why you are even asking it at all.

In most cases, you’re going to end up with an answer of, “Um . . . that’s a good question. I’m not sure. I need to think about it. What about you?”

The truth is when you ask a general question, you will get a general answer. It’s just a hard question to answer because no one thinks about their life in such broad and vague terms as “what they do for fun.” Remember, you want to enable people to be lazy, and open-ended questions actually make us think quite a bit and inject lulls into conversation.

Well, what happens when you hop to the other side of the spectrum and ask an extremely specific question, such as, “What is your favorite movie of all time?”

You’ll actually get the same stuttering answer as before, but for different reasons. This question is hard to answer because it is asking for one single answer, and it’s an answer that you want to represent you in a positive light. So not only is it asking you to identify a movie you like, but a movie that you think others might like, be able to relate to, and will sound good to others. When you ask extremely specific questions, they actually make you pause because you need to ensure that your answer is optimal and makes you look good in the face of judgment.

And of course, it’s just not easy to think of a single movie sometimes.

As you can see, both ends of the spectrum—specific and broad—are detrimental to conversations. They’re not easy to answer and they make people think too much, which essentially interrupts the flow of your conversation. If you’re not supposed to ask open-ended or specific questions, what’s the best course of action here?

To make any question easier to answer, put a boundary on it. A boundary lets people know exactly what you are asking, the context, and that it has a wide range of acceptable answers. That way it’s not necessarily about the actual answer, but rather the discussion that follows about that topic. In a way, boundaries keep you from using absolutes in questions, which, as you saw, are difficult to answer.

For instance, “What’s your favorite movie of all time?” is a tough specific question to answer, but the question, “What’s a good movie you have seen recently?” is actually pretty easy. All you have to do is recall the name of a recent movie that you don’t hate and the conversation can carry on. The boundaries you used to make the question easier to answer are a “good” movie that they have seen “recently.” Each qualifier you use makes it easier for someone to generate an answer, and after all, someone has to do the dirty work.

So when you have a specific question, you can put boundaries and qualifiers on the question to make it less specific. It doesn’t quite work the same way with broad, open-ended questions, so how can you make those types of queries work for you better?

Instead of asking an open-ended question, provide options along with the question.

“What do you like to do for fun?” becomes, “What do you like to do for fun? Do you like the outdoors, or music, or playing sports?”

Instead of asking one broad question, you’ve now asked one broad question and three more specific questions. See how the latter version is easier to answer because you are providing context and letting them know exactly what you want? You are also giving them a prompt in case they don’t really have an answer, so they can just latch onto what you say and agree with it. Again, you are making it easy for them and allowing them to think as little as possible.

Now that we’ve dealt with most pointless questions you might be unknowingly asking, you can also help people and solicit better answers from them effortlessly by asking for stories instead of mere answers.

If you’ve ever watched sports, then you’ll have seen many examples of this. Sports broadcasters interview athletes immediately after matches and games, which is probably the worst time to get a coherent thought from them because their hearts are still racing and their brains are still preoccupied from the athletic event. Nevertheless, ratings must prevail, so sportscasters ambush athletes while they are still dripping and short of breath.

It’s not a time when they are very articulate, and yet sportscasters typically get decent answers from the athletes because they ask them for stories instead of mere answers or replies. Instead of asking them if they thought the match went well, they’ll ask something like, “So when did you feel like the match went well? What happened to put you on the path to victory?”

See how that’s a much better and meatier prompt? It elicits a story and narrative that certainly wouldn’t have been the first thing out of their mouths otherwise. They are guiding the athletes and helping to form their answers for them; this is something we can do in daily life as well when we ask for stories.

Instead of asking if someone likes baseball, you could instead ask, “Have you liked baseball since you were a child? Why did you take to it over other sports?” Here, you are providing the context in your question and giving them a direction to go in that is easier for them to answer. In this case, it’s actually easier to answer with a story instead of a static yes or no. And you’ll be the beneficiary because this will provide exponentially more jumping off points for your conversation.

Finally, are you asking someone an oddball question or question that amounts to a conversation starter? Well, you better have an answer to it before you ask!

If you ask someone’s favorite movie and they get stuck and their mind goes blank (as it often will if you ask it in a very specific way), then they’ll bounce it back to you and you better have an answer or the conversation will stick right there.

Note from Bob:  Click HERE to purchase your, “The Art of Captivating Conversation: How to Be Confident, Charismatic, and Likable in Any Situation” book today!

 

Patrick King

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Patrick King is a former corporate lawyer who owns and runs Patrick King Consulting, a company dedicated to empowering people to communicate better.  He is the author of the bestselling series of Conversation Tactics books, and he is a social skills and conversation coach and speaker.  He lives in San Francisco, California.

MORE RECENT POSTS

Celebrating the 12th Anniversary of LeadingWithQuestions.com

All this week, we are celebrating the 12th Anniversary of LeadingWithQuestions.com with the release of my...

Celebrating the 12th Anniversary of LeadingWithQuestions.com

All this week, we are celebrating the 12th Anniversary of LeadingWithQuestions.com with the release of my...

Celebrating the 12th Anniversary of LeadingWithQuestions.com

All this week, we are celebrating the 12th Anniversary of LeadingWithQuestions.com with the release of my...

Celebrating the 12th Anniversary of LeadingWithQuestions.com

All this week, we are celebrating the 12th Anniversary of LeadingWithQuestions.com with the release of my...

Celebrating the 12th Anniversary of LeadingWithQuestions.com

All this week we will be celebrating the 12th Anniversary of LeadingWithQuestions.com with “Excerpts:...

9 Questions Leaders With Emotional Intelligence Aren’t Afraid to Ask

Guest Post by Marcel Schwantes Originally posted on LinkedIn Emotional Intelligence (EQ) has been a...

Reporting Questions

Guest Post by Bobb Biehl Once your priorities (measurable problems, goals, opportunities) are clear, these...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.