Years ago, after presenting to a very engaged group of commercial real estate professionals, I was packing up my gear and preparing to head out the door. I slowed my pace in doing so as I heard two of the meeting organizers engaged in an interesting conversation nearby.
“Lisa, what do you think is the most important factor in being a good networker?”
“Well, for starters, you have to care about other people.”
Yes! Such an elegant and appropriate answer. If we are to have good conversations and build valuable connections, we have to care about those around us: what they do, where they’re from, and their stories, dreams, and challenges. This is something I’m afraid we often fail or forget to do. Or we get completely wrong. The reasons? We may be totally wrapped up in our own heads, worlds, work, and worries. Or we fall into the trap of labeling ourselves as being introverted or shy (and therefore exempt from any obligation to acknowledge or engage with others). Or we are positively glued to some kind of electronic device. We may not even realize others are in our midst!
Yet the fact remains: If we are only focused on ourselves when we are around other people at work, at home, or in social settings, we are not only breaking a major social protocol rule, but we are also ensuring that nothing much in the way of conversation is ever going to take place. Any conversation that accidentally does break out will probably go nowhere. Or will be totally one-sided. We’ve all been there in one way or another. Without a foundation of caring, conversations fizzle out, become awkward, feel strained, create insignificance, hurt feelings, or go completely off the rails.
Related to caring is another “C” word: Curiosity. This beautiful trait goes hand-in-hand with caring. Or at least it should. When we combine caring with curiosity, we are interested and open, we engage, and we ask good questions. And I don’t mean snoopy, nosy, I-want-all-the-dirt questions. I mean questions that bring stories, ideas, and perspectives to light. These are often what take an otherwise ho-hum conversation into interesting, exciting, or compelling new territory. Good questions not only help us move beyond the predictable (but necessary) warmup of small talk, they also set us on the path to true connection and they expand our own worlds.
As examples, here are three questions I distinctly remember being asked in the last decade. They made for unforgettable exchanges. I remember not only the question and the conversation, but also the person who asked it and the setting we happened to be in.
Just recently on Karl Staib’s “Dig to Fly” podcast (which should be out soon), Karl asked me, “What were you like as a kid?” No one has asked me that in years! And, funny thing, answering that question made me realize I’m returning more and more to that true version of myself. That was a great feeling.
At a post-workout lunch with a friend from the gym. Allen asked, “If you could go on a 90-day all expenses paid trip (and all your work and personal obligations were handled in your absence) where would you go?” Well, that got my Inner Adventurer hyped up!
Standing in line for coffee at a conference, a new friend who was the spouse of one of the keynote speakers asked, “What’s your story? How did you end up doing what you do now?” The line was long enough that I was able to share at least the short version (and hear her story, too).
So now I’ll practice what I preach and ask you…
What is a memorable question someone has asked you? Who asked it? What do you remember about the person, the interaction, the setting? Where did the question take the conversation? How did it make you feel? Take note of this question and experience. That way, you can re-create the experience with others.
In closing, I have a little gift for you. It’s a free resource from my new book More Than Just Talk: The Essential Guide for Anyone Who Wants to Enjoy Better Conversations. It’s a handy list of conversation-generating questions organized by setting and situation.
Trust me. This PDF could change your conversations and life. Because once you choose to be more caring and curious (and have a few good questions in your pocket to prove it), your conversations will never be the same.