I have never been good at talking with other people. I developed a little talent at one-liners in high school and college. That cost me a good friend. I have a propensity for puns but that tends to hinder conversation unless you want others to talk about you. . . or groan.
Where I have struggled is keeping a conversation going with a new acquaintance, with my own children, with my co-workers, with my boss. I watched others have conversations and I wondered what they did that I was not doing. I just couldn’t figure it out, which is probably a comment about my inability to observe.
My wife Patricia is great at it. She could have a conversation with a fence post and get response. My pastor Billy Duke is another that enters into conversation and makes a stranger feel known and welcome and talkative. My friend Oliver Heath is another; he carries conversations well. My dad was another; he never met a stranger. Often I would be amazed as a kid at how my dad could walk up to somebody and begin a great conversation.
I was quiet, waiting to say something funny or profound or sly or clever or sarcastic.
All of those things tend to be conversation stoppers.
One thing keeps conversation going. I learned it from Larry King, the interviewer, in an audiobook, How to Talk with Anybody about Anything. Here was his secret:
The person who asks the questions controls the conversation!
Suddenly it all made sense. My dad, Oliver, Billy, Patricia all had this in common when talking with other people: They asked questions. I made statements. What a major difference!
This secret changed my conversation effectiveness overnight. I was forty years old. I was learning a new skill.
Shortly after hearing this secret, I had to travel an hour or so with an acquaintance that normally made me feel uncomfortable. I decided to try out my newly learned insight. I planned two questions. As soon as we had his truck loaded and got on the road, I asked him, “How did you become a surveyor?” I never got to ask the second question. He explained his journey, and I commented a little along the way. I heard him tell another friend later that day, “Keith and I had a great trip together. I made a new friend.” Wow! The power of one question.
I am still learning to ask questions, still not up to the level of my conversation heroes listed above.
Asking questions will help you in every conversation: your boss, your friends, neighbors, your family . . . even your kids!
Next week we will look at some successful, yet simple, question starters that you can use. Then the week after that we will look at the foundation to the question-asking secret: Why does it work sometimes and other times it doesn’t?