Where do you work?
What do you do?
Where are you from?
How many times have you been asked these questions?
The sheer lack of imagination applied to most conversations makes it seem like our species only developed speech a few decades ago and we’re still trying to figure it out. Either that or we’re so hamstrung with worry about asking the wrong thing that we decide to only ask the safe questions — the ones we know won’t offend anyone or reveal anything too personal.
In every conversation, we’re given a rich palette of colors to paint with, but we dip our palaver paintbrush into the same boring hues time and again, resulting in the same boring conversations.
Probably due to my hatred for small talk, the art of asking questions has always fascinated me. Questions are the key to making conversations more interesting, so if we want to improve our conversations, we need to improve our questions.
Two years ago, I attended a leadership conference in Texas that profoundly influenced the way I think about questions. In a room packed with 5,000 people, the conference hosts kicked off the first icebreaker with a bang:
“We know that all of you are used to getting asked the same three or four questions every time you meet a new person at a conference: ‘Where do you work? Where are you from? Is this your first time attending this conference?’ So we’re laying down a ground rule for this conference: You can’t ask any of those questions. We’re passing out cards around the room that contain deep, meaningful questions, and you’ll be asking each other questions like that all week. No fluff.”
Sure enough, thousands of little conversation cards circulated around the room bearing questions like the following:
- What is one thing you want to accomplish in your lifetime?
- What is one thing life is teaching you right now?
- What is the most adventurous thing you have ever done?
For the first icebreaker, we were instructed to pair up with someone we didn’t know and ask each other one or two questions from the cards. I was sitting next to an older gentleman who didn’t look too scary, so I asked him to pair up. “Gary” and I asked each other the questions on our respective cards, and we were suddenly painting with all of the conversational colors on the palette.
In every conversation, we’re given a rich palette of colors to paint with, but we dip our palaver paintbrush into the same boring hues time and again.
Within five minutes, I had opened up to Gary about my career aspiration of becoming a leadership author and speaker — a dream that only a few people knew at the time. And Gary told me about the pain of losing his older sister when he was only 15. He talked about how much she taught him in those 15 years and that he’s a better person from having known her.
After our short conversation, I felt closer to Gary than to many people I had known for years. I left the conversation with a feeling of warmth and connection, not boredom and disinterest.
That experience taught me that small talk is a product of our own laziness and comfort. It’s 100 times easier to ask a common question than to dig deep and ask something more meaningful.
If we want to improve our conversations, we need to improve our questions.
Asking deeper questions not only requires you to exercise creativity but to take a genuine interest in another person’s story. It demands vulnerability and openness because if you’re asking deep questions, you’re going to be asked deep questions in return.
Here are five ways to avoid soul-sucking small talk:
1. Learn How to Ask Better Questions
“Without a good question, a good answer has no place to go.” -Clayton Christensen
Thoughtful questions are the scaffolding of every worthwhile conversation. We can improve our dialogue by asking open-ended questions, posing one question at a time, becoming comfortable with silence, and not “leading the witness” by hiding advice in our questions (“Don’t you think it would be best to just…?”).
A question that is 20 percent better can often yield an answer that is 200 percent better. In this way, questions have a disproportionately large impact on the quality of a conversation.
There’s a world of difference between asking someone “Did work go well today?” versus asking “What was the highlight of your workday today?”
The former question puts the other person into autopilot, eliciting a yes/no answer or a bland response like, “Yeah, it was fine.”
The latter question catches people off-guard in a positive way. They think. They smile. They remember that amidst their hectic and stressful day, a customer gave them a kind word or a genuine thank you. An otherwise forgotten moment is remembered and appreciated.
Invest the time, effort, and curiosity to ask better questions.