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I know the difference between open-ended and close-ended questions—and I still can’t talk to strangers! What’s going on?

I was leading a workshop on Having a Conversation with Australians several weeks ago when a participant stated, “Look, I understand that you’re to ask people open-ended questions in order to have a good conversation. But once I ask this type question and they give a response, I’m like, ‘Uhh . . . OK,’ and then I don’t know what to do.”

Excellent point. First, let’s backtrack a bit.

#1, what’s the issue with open-ended and close-ended questions and socialising? Open-ended questions are just that: a question that requires more than a “yes-or-no” response. Close-ended questions are answered with a single “yes”, “no” or single-word response.

Close-ended question: Did you have a good time at footy yesterday?

A: Yes

Open-ended question: Tell me a little about the footy game you went to over the weekend; I’ve never been to one and am thinking of going to a game.

A: Well, FIRST . . . (and away they go!)

I’m sure you can see how trying to generate open-ended answers will be much more fruitful—and interesting—than simply getting a lot of “Uhh . . . yes . . . no . . . yellow!” as responses. That’s like pulling teeth! Generating extended narratives and (potentially) exciting stories is what you want for the following reasons: 1) The speaker will think YOU are a fabulous conversationalist (even though YOU’RE doing all the listening) and 2) You can really get to know a person this way and create a bond with that person. Which is what you want, whether you are seeking potential mentors, friends or business connections.

Active listening is what it’s all about.

But that workshop participants had a good point. Plying the active listening trade really is easy, but you should know a few tricks in order to become a master.

Let me give you an example. This young participant and I were doing a role play about chatting with someone in a café. The conversation was to be on coffee. (And using the old “come-here-often”? ploy usually falls F.L.A.T.)

P (participant): “So, err, what kind of coffee do you prefer?

M (me): “Black, usually.”

P: “Uhh . . . OK . . .” and she looked at me helplessly and fell out of her role. “See, now I don’t know what to do!”

So, what DO you say, now that you know this person likes black coffee? Lots! Scour your brain. What do you know about black coffee and human beings? Keep being focused on that person. Look at that individual closely and try and make connections between coffee and that individual. It’s not about YOU, it’s about the PERSON YOU’RE TRYIING TO GET TO KNOW. Here are a few options. They may not be witty, but they’ll get the job done and will require a detailed response from the other individual:

  • Black! Wow. You must be a real coffee connoisseur.

     

  • I tried drinking black, but I need milk and sugar. How do you get used to drinking black coffee?

     

  • Are there certain coffee beans that you like more than others?

  • I also love black coffee. Do you think certain types of people that like their coffee black? (This one may be a bit . . . yukky, perhaps like you’re trying to flirt. And if you are—try it!)

  • You look very fit (if the person does look athletic). Do you deliberately drink black coffee as part of your diet? (This response will give the person a compliment, AND demand a more detailed answer—killing two proverbial birds with one stone! Good on ya!)

You might NOT want to puff up your own knowledge and say things such as: “Coffee originated in Ethiopia, you know. . .” and then spout a litany of facts, or say, “I read a report that stated that drinking black coffee can make your hair fall out.” Remember, it’s not about you.

Let’s say this person answered to your #2 question, on getting used to drinking black coffee:

It took me a few years, but now I can’t stand milk or sugar in my coffee; it’s too sweet and rich for me that way.

Now, THERE’S an opening. You could then say:

  • You must be a disciplined person. Are you disciplined in other areas, as well?

  • Let me guess. You don’t consume many sweets, do you?

     

  • Do you eat cheese, then? Cheese has milk in it. I couldn’t live without cheese! (OK, this response DOES have “you” in it, but you are humorously contrasting yourself with that person who you are praising as being very disciplined.)

I hope you see the pattern here. FOCUS ON the person, LISTEN to the person’s response, make connections, actively show your interest in what that person has to say and see where it takes you.

I am a communications coach in the Melbourne and Geelong area, and my company is called Eloquent English: www.eloquentenglish.com. I offer workshops in public speaking, self presentation, active listening and pronunciation, among others.

 

 

 

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