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This is The End of Small Talk

Two bored monkeys sick of all the stupid small talk by Sepp Rutz on Unsplash

How Asking Better Questions Improves Our Relationships, Betters Our Mindset & Enhances Our Work

What is the purpose of a question? Think about how many questions you ask, hear or provide answers to in a day. Have you ever stopped to wonder what the purpose of all this asking is; what it accomplishes?

During our formative years, we discover the power of why. Budding young minds are curious and thirsty for information on how the world works so they can begin to understand it and their place within it. As we age, our curiosity diminishes and so too does our ability to ask the right kinds of questions.

This unfortunate evolutionary reality means we develop into giant apes that can’t hold a conversation for more than 5 minutes.

Dictionary.com defines a question as: “a sentence in an interrogative form, addressed to someone in order to get information in reply.” You can think of questions as fact-gathering missions because humans can’t handle ambiguity. We need to know the answer to things so we can find order in a chaotic world and we need to be able to handle one interpretation at a time.

They can be big concepts like trying to find the meaning of life or uncovering your life’s purpose, or they can be small-scale like trying to make sense of why going to the dentist gives you the jitters. We are systematically filtering through questions all day long, but we never stop to think about how they can improve our lives in many ways if we learn how to shape them with more intention.

Photo by Evan Dennis on Unsplash

The Question Gradient

Consider that the types of questions we ask on a day-to-day basis fall on a gradient. On one side, we have “small talk” that’s ripe with mundane pleasantries, the “how are you doing today’s” if you will. You can’t tempt a thought-provoking response out of such a generic question. Think about how often respondents reply with little more than a couple of words. How are you going to connect with this person? What are you going to learn? And yet, this surface-level communication is something we participate in daily with friends, family and strangers!

But, on the other side of the question gradient, we ask questions to fill in the blanks. “Why did you learn to write code?” These probing questions help us to understand the subject better. They can take place between anyone, a colleague showing you how to use a program or one partner demonstrating why their way of stacking the dishes is best. Yes, we can learn a lot from seeking information, but that doesn’t fulfill our need for connection.

So what is the right question, and how can it connect us better with ourselves, the people in our lives and with perfect strangers? How can we connect in an interconnected world that’s disconnected us from how to communicate effectively?

Technology & Communication

Humans are addicted to technology. This isn’t new information. We have unlimited access to all the information we could ever want (rejoice) and it connects us to others all around the world(fulfilling our social requirements).

But, what technology has ultimately done is erode our ability to communicate. Everywhere you look, families eat dinner while on their phones, parents scroll through Instagram while their child yearns for attention and couples spend quality time sharing a sofa while completely ignoring each other, two hours deep into the fourth re-run of The Office Season 5. I get it, there will never be another Michael Scott.

We live in a world of to-the-point texts and small talk as a lazy approach to pushing through conversations so we can get back to browsing. A 2014 study highlighted that couples who spent 10 minutes talking without their phones present had more empathic conversations. Precisely why we should make it a priority to converse freely with the absence of technology.

The Right Question

In an interconnected hairbrained world, the best thing we can do is communicate effectively with ourselves, our bosses, partners, kids and even the perfect stranger at the grocery store.

How?

It’s not snappy text replies that spell deeper connections. It’s going back to basics, looking someone in the eye and instead of asking them how they are, asking them, “what was the best part about your day?”

The right question is being an active participant in a conversation and going beyond the cookie-cutter questions. It’s expanding on the basics, forcing both parties to forget their devices and emerge from their personal bubbles to engage one another in a more meaningful dialogue.

It’s seeking an answer that goes beyond a stock reply like yes, no or I’m fine.

Photo by Mihai Surdu on Unsplash

The Benefits of Asking Proper Questions

  1. Happiness: You want to put emphasis on fostering relationships with tangible people rather than on your social media because new evidence suggests that the happiest people are the ones that partake in more substantive conversations instead of small talk. Something that isn’t easily done on social media. Lead researcher Psychologist Matthias Mehl hypothesizes that substantive discussions help humans find meaning in their lives and lead to a greater sense of connection with others. And now more than ever we need deeper connection with other people.
  2. Self-Reflection: Have you got a nibbling question weighing on your mind that you just can’t seem to shake? One of the best tools you can use to overcome mental roadblocks is reflective writing. All you need is a pen, paper and a few minutes of your undivided attention. Just like in school, give yourself a header to direct your focus, then ask away and draw connections until you find the answer you’ve been missing. The only rule: be specific. Don’t just ask ‘should I switch jobs?’ Elaborate, get to the heart of the matter ‘what about my job makes me unhappy enough to consider applying elsewhere?’ Or examine what you need in order to be happy. This works wonders for helping you to tap into your inner needs. Ask enough pointed questions, and you’ll sort through the mental clutter for better self-direction.
  3. Improved Relationships: Make the most out of every conversation, so you can walk away happy. To connect better with others, you want to ask open-ended substantive questions that allow the respondent to guide the chat. Ultimately we’re all waiting for our turn to speak anyway. Allowing someone else to talk proves you’re interested in what they have to say, which encourages further conversation. It also serves as a building block to any relationship.

Let’s look at some ways in which you can ask better questions to deepen discussions with others.

At Work:

Here are some science-backed icebreakers you can toss out there, to get to know your colleagues better.

  • What was their first job?
  • If you could learn a new skill today, what would it be?
  • What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

At Home:

Get the conversation rolling with your partner or kids when asking about their day.

  • What about today made you smile/laugh/happy?
  • What was the most exciting thing you learned today?
  • Did you encounter any challenges today?

Conversation Starters with Strangers:

Get creative when conversing with people you aren’t acquainted with. The key is picking up on something about the stranger you can use to generate conversation: do they have kids, are they wearing something you find appealing, etc.

  • What’s been the highlight of your day?
  • What brought you here?
  • What are you doing today to make yourself happy?
Photo by Gary Butterfield on Unsplash

Better Questions for a Better Life

Questions are a form of communication we use to help us connect with others. Humans are social by nature, and we all have a desire to be heard, so by asking open-ended substantive questions, we strengthen and deepen bonds with others.

We all know the power of a good conversation, it’s energizing and gives you a high. And you probably learned something from it. This is because our basic needs are being met, so we walk away with a sense of fulfillment. That’s why consulting counsellors, psychologists and even psychics often leads to breakthroughs because we’re being asked gentle probative questions that guide us in finding the right answer for ourselves.

It is time to bridge the disconnect the technological era has given us; it’s time to focus on communicating better by asking more in-depth questions that encourage stronger connections and greater levels of happiness within and around us.

It’s time to end small talk for good!

This post is part of a series of articles about my $100,000 journey into re-building my mind, body and inner-self through a series of uncommon experiences that completely transformed my life. Head over here to view more.


This is The End of Small Talk was originally published in ILLUMINATION on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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10 Things You Can Do During The Commercial Break Without Getting Off The Couch

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