Conversation is never about you. It’s always about the other person. It’s a journey of discovery, meant to get to know the other person, draw that person out, and find the richness therein. It’s not a platform to relate personal accomplishments or to summarize past and future endeavors to a captive audience.
The success of any conversation, whether you initiate it or not, depends not only on the questions that each person may ask, but, much more critically, on the follow-up questions. It’s not so hard to ask an initial question. For example: What are your impressions of the meeting? What does your week look like? Any plans for the weekend? The real test of conversational skill comes in what happens next. After the reply, do you answer the question yourself? And, in so doing, switch the subject back to what’s really important, you? Or, do you ask another question that will follow-up your partner’s reply, and show that you are truly listening and interested? So, depending on the reply to the original question, you might zero in on why the meeting seems to so producive (or not!), a tell-me-more-about one key event in the week ahead, or a that-sounds-so-exciting/relaxing/fulfilling followed by an interest in details about the weekend event.
Follow-up questions are critical for many reasons, in my experience.
- They demonstrate interest in the other person. What the person has said is interesting, and you would like to know more. The person himself or herself is, de facto, interesting as well.
- They communicate a posture of curiosity and an openness to new information. You are less concerned about communicating your own opinion or viewpoint than understanding what the other person’s perspective might be.
- They validate the other person’s accomplishments and epertise. That individual has the opportunity to share the fruits of his or her reading, work, or travel.
- They imply self-confidence. You’re so comfortable in your own skin that you can focus on others. You don’t need the constant validation of me-centered talk.
- They are other-centered.
What might be some useful follow-up questions? Here are some that have worked for me:
- Tell me more about the project/your experience/your findings/your trip.
- What projects/activities are you involved in at the moment?
- Sounds like that might be exciting/a lot of fun/hard work/a rich experience. What was the most exciting/amusing/fulfilling/challenging aspect?
- Why do you think the event/celebration/project was so well received?
Invariably, answers to these questions lead to more rich discussion that allows me, after a time, to inject snippets from my own experiences or my own reading to provide a perspective that affirms what has been said or provokes more discussion. I can hand the reins over again with another question, and we ride along together, each taking turns, until we arrive, enriched, at a destination.
The questions don’t have to be fast and furious. Silence after a response can prompt a person to elaborate on what he or she has just said. So can a paraphrase, or very brief summary of what was said. The paraphrase lets you test how accurately you understood the message your conversation partner communicated.
What happens in the absence of follow-up questions, when we turn the conversation back on ourselves after the person has answered our question? We risk communicating that our original query was merely perfunctory. We asked because that’s what you do, but we’re really not that interested; what’s important is what’s happening in our world. What the individual might be doing is not compelling enough to delve into.
The purpose of conversation, then, as I suggested in a former post (November 28, 2014), is not to tell people about ourselves. It’s to investigate the experiences and thoughts of others to nourish our own life. We can’t do that unless we follow up.