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Whether you’re a social butterfly, a wallflower, or anything in between, chances are you’ve walked into a professional conference, networking mixer, graduation party, wedding reception, or other gathering and wondered, “What do I say?”  If this sounds even vaguely familiar, you may find today’s post helpful.

After spending nearly a decade researching and writing my new book, More Than Just Talk: The Essential Guide for Anyone Who Wants to Enjoy Better Conversations, I had a huge epiphany: “What do I say?” isn’t necessarily the right thing to be concerned about. Sure, having some good opening lines in your back pocket is awesome.  But, rest assured, these could be as simple as:

  • A friendly greeting combined with a warm self-introduction (“Hello, good afternoon. I’m Patti.”)
  • A sincere compliment (“That’s an awesome suit!” or “Love those shoes!”)
  • A lighthearted comment about something going on in the immediate vicinity (“Can you believe how many people are here?” or “Man, it’s raining cats and dogs out there!”)

After that, here’s the secret: It’s not about what you say. It’s about what you ask.  That’s right. It’s all about the questions.

At the outset of an exchange, your questions might begin in the safe realm of small-talk. (“How’s your day going?” “What brought you to this event?” “How do you know the host / guest of honor?”)  From there, you can move into more interesting, if not intriguing territory. (“What are your thoughts on this wine and the plastic glasses we’re drinking it from?” “What are you working on that’s fun or interesting these days?” “If you won the lottery tomorrow, what would you do?”)  Think like a reporter or talk show host looking for an interesting story.  Or like a savvy conversationalist who wants to liven up an otherwise ho-hum exchange.  (Just don’t drift into the realm of the invasive busy-body who’s only out for some juicy gossip fodder.)

Related to this, I recently hosted one of my signature Conversation Salons.  This is a gathering of 16 women with the vision of having an evening of genuine, interesting, and meaningful conversations. It’s not a party. Neither is it a networking event. (Yet it’s always festive and fun – and great connections ensue.)

The theme selected for the evening was “Change.” (I know! Who isn’t dealing with or hoping for some form of that these days?) The questions I crafted for the event sparked some powerful exchanges.

  • What thoughts, feeling, or memories come to mind when you think about the word “change?”
  • What kinds of change are you seeing, experiencing, or trying to create in your life or work?
  • What are some positive ways you could respond to, manage, embrace, or foster change?
  • What hidden (and not-so-hidden) gifts go hand-in-hand with the changes you’re experiencing?

It was definitely a memorable evening!

Here’s what I love best about about good questions: they show interest in others.  They get conversations started, and they can make us think and dig deeper into our lives, experiences, and feelings. They make us human and real. They have the power to connect us very quickly.

Questions also prompt us to do something else that is hugely important to good conversation: once we ask a question, it’s our duty (and good manners) to listen to what the other person has to say. That listening allows us to hear clues that can help us come up with…more questions. From there good conversation has a chance to flow, deepen, and even meander.

For example, as we moved through the questions during the recent salon, the conversations definitely centered around change. But we also took little side trips toward other topics. We shared stories about our growing-up years, our marriages and breakups, our kids, and our careers and creative projects. We compared notes on the games we used to play, still enjoy playing, or would enjoy learning to play some day. (One participant has generously offered to teach us all how to play Mahjong!)  My home was definitely filled with caring, connecting, and laughter.  Good questions set the tone and helped us get to the “good stuff” quickly.

But back to this blog’s lesson — and a call to action. Next time you find yourself fretting over what you’ll say at your next social or professional gathering or even in your next conversation with a loved one, co-worker, or random stranger, remember that good questions are you best friends.

So what should you ask?  That’s totally up to you. My advice is to start paying attention to and collecting interesting questions that you can ask others in a variety of situations.  Let that list grow and evolve.  See what works and what falls flat.  Getting good at conversation takes practice!

Want some ideas to get you started? Get a free copy of a list of conversation questions from my new book. Or, hey, just get the book. It’s loaded with all kinds of strategies, stories, and tactics you can put to use in your very next conversation.

I’ll close this post by asking you:  What’s a question someone has asked you recently that prompted a pleasant or meaningful exchange?  I’d love to hear about it!