A few years ago, my father and I were having dinner with some of his business colleagues. Everyone had one or two stories to tell, but one fellow really took the cake when it came to talking about his experiences. He shared one long story, mostly centered on projects he had been working on and his views on various business topics. On and on it went, twenty minutes, thirty minutes, as the rest of us listened in silence. Finally, as the meal came to a close and the story went on, my father said, with a raised eyebrow and a wry smile:
“Does this story have an ending?”
We all shared a chuckle at that, and the speaker soon wrapped up his tale. But I never forgot that experience, and the nugget of truth about human nature I saw that night: people can be pretty self-centered. Sometimes they realize it, and sometimes not. Maybe some of them don’t particularly care.
But rather than become depressed about this fact, we can learn to take advantage of it. We can combine this truth with various social strategies that can actually encourage people to like us more — even those people who are a little more self-absorbed than average. This is true for friends and family, as well as for romantic relationships.
How do we do this? In a few words: listening the right way, and asking questions the right way.
Let’s take a look at the details.
The Bright Side of Human Self-Centeredness
People love to talk about themselves — their opinions, their experiences, their plans. While this can be bothersome in the case of those who take it too far, there is a bright side: we can make others feel good (as well as make them like us better) by strategically giving them opportunities to talk about themselves.
When my partner and I are in conversation, I can make her feel good not just by listening to her sincerely and actively, but also by encouraging her to tell me things about herself, her opinions on various matters, what she’s been doing lately, et cetera. Giving my partner opportunities to talk about herself is a small but powerful gift, and the benefit goes both ways. My partner gets the pleasure of talking about her views, which will help her feel more love and gratitude towards me. Everybody wins.
In terms of specific conversation tactics, asking open-ended questions allows for this kind of transparency and openness, much better than “one or the other” questions do.
This also opens the door to longer and deeper conversations, instead of things being reduced to the usual back-and-forth scripts. If both partners are self-aware and generous enough to ask each other questions in this way, then talk becomes spontaneous and fun again. Conversation with your partner becomes a mindful activity, instead of degrading into just another check-box in the day’s task list.
Let’s have an example scenario. Contrast the two sample conversations below, and take note of the underlined phrases and the effect they present.
If I stuck to asking my partner “one or the other”-type closed questions all the time, the conversation might proceed this way:
Me: Did you enjoy your dinner with friends tonight?
Her: Yeah, it was fun. Good to see them all again.
Me: Did you eat at that new sushi restaurant down the street?
Her: We did, and the food was tasty! Everyone enjoyed it.
Me: Jay and Sam were there, right? I haven’t seen them in a while. Are they doing okay?
Her: Yeah, they’re great.
Me: That’s good.
In this first example, my partner doesn’t say much in the way of descriptions or details about her night out with friends. It’s not just because she’s bored or being short with me — it’s because I don’t give her the opportunity to be descriptive or detailed, since I am only asking closed questions. Each of the underlined phrases above sounds like an interrogation question for which there are only one or two acceptable answers. Did you eat there? Yes or no. Did you enjoy it? Yes or no. Are your friends doing okay? Yes or no. I’m not giving my partner options.
There is a logical/psychological error similar to this mistake, called the False Dilemma. Falling prey to a False Dilemma means believing that there are only a few options available, even though there are actually many. If I stick to asking my partner “closed” questions all the time, I might be pushing her into a False Dilemma scenario without realizing it.
Now let’s see what kind of scenario might take place if I ask open-ended questions, and invite my partner to give descriptions and details.
Me: You went out for dinner with your friends tonight, right? Tell me about that. [Say this with a smile and with friendly body language — we don’t want to sound as though we’re interrogating her, or as though we are jealous. Remember our first principle!]
Her: Oh, it was fun! Bit of a hectic start, though.
Me: A hectic start? What happened, exactly?
Her: Well, we were supposed to meet up at six, but Sam and Jay were late — as usual! But it turned out that they were only late because they’d gone out to buy gifts for you and me. For no reason, can you imagine?
Me: Wow! Those two always were real nice. What have they been busy with lately?
Her: Well, you know Sam just finished her medical studies, so she’s just gotten residency at a local hospital. And Jay is planning a trip to Hong Kong next month, to attend that meditation seminar he’s been talking about.
Me: Exciting lives, those two! So the gang’s all there now — What did you guys do next?
Her: Well, we were all pretty hungry by that time. So we went out to eat at that new sushi place.
Me: Aw yeah, sushi! What dishes did you try? What were your favorites?
Her: I’m gonna go with just their plain tuna sashimi, it was delicious…
Look at how much description she goes into during the second conversation. That kind of outcome is much more likely if I give her an invitation to tell me the details. That invitation comes in the form of my asking open-ended questions — questions to which there are many possible answers, not just one or two.
Now that we know the power of asking open-ended questions, and how they can transform our conversations for the better, how can we apply this in our own interactions with loved ones? Consider these tips:
- Phrase your questions in such a way that there are many possible answers. Try not to ask questions that can be answered by just a yes or no. For example, ask “What did you think of the movie?”, instead of “Did you like the movie?” (Not only does the second option only have a yes/no answer, it also puts some social pressure on your partner — they probably won’t want to say outright that they disliked the movie, even if they did.)
- Encourage your partner to tell stories, via the way you ask questions. Ask questions such as, “What happened?”; “What did you do next?”; “How did it all end?”; et cetera. Or give an indication that you know what they did that day, and ask for a story. “You told me that you would be giving that big presentation at work today…tell me about that.”
- Don’t forget to use active listening while you encourage your partner to be descriptive and detailed. Use eye contact, receptive body language, occasional sounds such as “ah” and “mm-hm” — and of course, actually give your partner your full attention. There’s no point in encouraging your partner to go into stories and details, if you’re just going to let your mind wander as she talks.
A few small tweaks to the way we listen and converse can have a profound positive effect on our relationships. As I’ve said before: in a frantic, fast-paced world where nobody seems to have time or patience for anyone else, giving your partner your full attention and full engagement is a rare and precious gift.
I’ve given a few examples and tips above, but now I’d like to hear from you. What can you modify about your speaking and listening habits, to encourage deeper and more detailed conversation with your partner? Let us know in the comments.
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