Art of the Open-Ended Question

In the previous article on small talk we looked at why it is important. Today we’ll look at some ideas of what to talk about.

We say small talk, but the true skill lies in the listening.  You don’t want to dominate the conversation; the goal is to establish rapport, while learning something about the person you are speaking with.  And the best way to encourage this is by using open-ended questions.

The Open-Ended Question

Too often people will go into a conversation asking close-ended questions; these are questions to which “Yes” or “No” is a complete answer.  The issue here is that:

  1. It doesn’t encourage them to expand on their answer, thereby stopping the conversation dead in its tracks
  2. You don’t learn anything new or unexpected

You then find yourself dragging the conversation along, often uncomfortably, until there is nothing left to say and you make an awkward escape.  Contrast this with open-ended questions which, by their nature, encourage the person you are speaking with to expand and elaborate on your question.  This sharing helps move the conversation along naturally as you begin to discover common ground to build upon.

Listen with Intent

The other tool that can’t be ignored is Active Listening.  Not only must you pose the question, but you need to focus on the response as well.  That means looking the person in the eyes, not checking your phone, and certainly not looking over their shoulder for somebody different to talk to! (If you find them looking over YOUR shoulder that means you haven’t engaged them fully enough.  It is a great indicator that you need to step it up a notch to capture their interest).

It is during the listening that you’ll learn the unexpected, or uncover a mutual interest that will create a bond.  Studies show that people like people who are like them. [link to study] This doesn’t mean that you need to be alike in every way.  All you need is a single shared interest or commonality to build upon.

A great way to encourage the other person to elaborate on what they are saying is to strategically repeat the last few words they’ve said, in the form of a question.  For example:

“…and then I took a new position as General Manager.”

“As General Manager?”

“Yes!  It was a big change but I…”

This is a form of Paraphrasing that shows both interest, as well as quietly encourages them to build on what they are saying.

The second key to active listening, is Silence.  You want to keep the conversation moving with the open-ended questions and paraphrasing, but you need to add silence so that they can respond.  We all have the instinctual need to fill the silence up.  If you can master this then chances are that the other person will end up sharing more than they intended.

After all, are you learning more when you are talking, or when you are listening?

General Topics

“That’s all well and good” you say, “but I still don’t have anything to talk about!”

Knowing what to say is the easy part; it just takes a (very) little pre-planning.  The first thing to consider is the context.  If you are at a business event, such as a conference or workshop, then you already have a shared interest to discuss.  Most often the conversation will begin with companies and job titles, or products and services provided.  But from there (if you were listening!) there will always be a thread for you to pull on that will encourage them to keep going.

The best of these conversations eventually lead away from business towards personal lives.  I was at a lunch and learn a while back, hosted by insurance lawyers.  Pretty dry stuff.  One gentleman at the table and I started off the usual way, until he casually mentioned his involvement with the Houston Maritime Museum.  That lead to me sharing my sailing background and the next thing we were getting along like old friends.   A true connection was forged and that is a relationship that I maintain to this day.

And if the conversation doesn’t make it that far?  Just wait for the right time and bow out gracefully, saying something simple like “It was nice meeting you.  Have a great day”.  Or better yet, introduce them to somebody else you know (as if you were the host) so that perhaps they have something more to talk about.  If things work out they’ll thank you for it, which is now some common ground to build from later.

Everyone wants to talk about their career, family, or health to some degree.  I once met a guy who said he was on a “No White” diet, where he didn’t eat anything white.  That includes sugar, flower, mayo, you name it.  We went down the rabbit hole on that one and it’s actually a pretty clever way to go about it!

Failing that you can always go generic and talk about sports or the weather.  These are easy ways to find common ground, because they are a shared experience.  We may be from different sides of the tracks, but we both get rained on just the same.

Go Specific

My wife is amazing at this and all credit goes to her. She will do a bit of research ahead of time for a topic of conversation, then casually drop it when the time is right.

We have a friend from Norway who comes to the US a few times a year.  She will look at the Norwegian news to see what is going on, then ask him about it.  Blows his mind.

I think that this is one of the most thoughtful ways of showing somebody that you care.  Taking the time to research their interests in order to stimulate the conversation.  It shows that you are genuinely interested in them and will help you get to know them much better.

Topics to Avoid

You already know.  Politics and religion.  These are polarizing topics that get peoples blood up quickly.  Fine for a deep conversation when the time is right, but the small talk phase is not the time.

Final Thoughts

Small talk is when people get comfortable with each other.  It’s the feeling out period where you search for common ground, and make conclusions about the other person: even if only subconsciously.  Do I like this person?  Do we share the same values?

And it is important even with close friends and family.  It serves as a “warming up” period where you get the relationship back up to speed.  That’s why your Mom always asks about the weather; it’s a shared experience and an easy topic to get things moving.

Most of the communication taking place during small talk isn’t about what is being said.  It’s the non-verbal cues: tone of voice, body language, eye contact, etc.  We make subconscious assessments of the person we are speaking with based on all of this.  The conversation itself is just a vehicle to make that happen.

The most important part of making small talk is listening.  Everything in life is a negotiation on some level and you aren’t learning anything valuable when you are talking.  So shut up and listen.

Do you have a go-to conversation starter?

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