It's all about inviting the other person to talk, and then listening.
Here are seven simple questions (not in any particular order) that you can use to engage with people and make your conversations more helpful and supportive.
How are you feeling today?
This is one of the most important things to say at the beginning of a conversation. Just as the technical well-being of a car affects a road trip, our well-being affects our interaction with other people. If someone tells me that he has a headache today, or that he just got a raise today, I can adjust my conversation to my interlocutor.
I find that many people give a generic answer, thinking it’s just a polite, rhetorical question. I let them know it’s not, and that I’m sincerely interested in how they are feeling by asking follow-up questions.
Do you want to talk about it?
It’s fundamental for a conversation that the people involved be interested in both listening and talking. This simple question says, “I want to listen to you.” With this question, you let the other person know that they are standing in front of an open door, so to speak. They can go through it by sharing more with you, but they don’t have to. They might not want to talk about the subject that has been brought up.
What would have to happen for … ?
I love this question! Hidden in it there is a conviction that the solution to a problem is attainable. If people tell you about their troubles, ask them what would have to happen for those problems to go away. If someone is looking for a job, ask what would have to happen for them to get it. This question can help someone move from complaining to a more constructive approach to the situation.
What’s your goal?
In the popular board game Snakes and Ladders, the ladders are shortcuts on the winding path to the finish. Asking about people’s goals is very similar. Sometimes a person goes on and on about a million topics, and asking them to cut to the chase doesn’t always work. Asking about their objectives may be more effective, since it doesn’t ask for details or the many options the person has to choose from to achieve those goals. It appeals to something deeper, which is often pure and noble.
Would you like to know what I think?
I like to offer my opinion. At the same time, I am aware that most people don’t talk to others to hear their opinion, but to express their own. It’s not easy, but during a conversation, I do try to hear and understand the other person’s position. Only when I feel that the moment is right for me to offer what I think, I ask if the other person wants to know what I think. Sometimes the affirmative answer is only a courtesy, but even a purely courteous “yes” makes the person saying it transition to a listening mode.
What will you do?
With questions like those above, I try to start the conversation by understanding where the other person’s coming from; then I ask open-ended questions to give the person space to talk about what’s important to them. I leave the questions about particulars for the end. If things are the way you have described, what are you going to do about it? What is the one concrete and realistic thing you can do? When will you do it, and how will you know that it was done? The answers become a form of declaration before the speaker and the listener.
Having always heard that talking is silver and silence is gold, I’ve long thought that the secret to good communication is knowing how to be silent. Today I consider silence to be important, but I believe it’s more important to know how to skillfully ask the right questions. If you master even the seven noted here, you will learn much more about other people, and they’ll feel appreciated and heard. Soon, you’ll become one of the most popular conversationalists around.