Curiosity may have killed the cat, but I can tell you it never killed a conversation. Showing genuine curiosity about a person’s job, life, interests, opinions, or needs is a great way to start a conversation, keep it going and create connections.
For many of us, starting a conversation with someone can be awkward. It can even feel like a chore. We may feel that we have nothing interesting to offer the other person, or we don’t want to embarrass ourselves by saying something dumb. Or maybe we simply feel as if we don’t have time to meet someone new or get to know someone better—after all, our lives are already too hectic, and we don’t feel we need any more friends.
But continuing to initiate conversations and be curious about people is fundamental to building valuable relationships because curiosity creates connections—that is the law of curiosity.
When you don’t know how to start a conversation, start by being curious. And remember this: People love to talk. You just need to know how to get them going. I don’t mean prompting them to pause a monologue while you passively listen. A good conversation involves give and take, an exchange in which two people are genuinely engaged, listening, responding, and connecting to each other.
Spark Interest by Being Curious
What would you genuinely like to know about the person?
If you’re wondering about the smash hit project she led or his stellar racquetball game, why not ask? If you don’t know anything about the person, ask general questions about what you like to discover about people you meet. Often picking one topic to pursue is all you need to get the dialogue rolling.
Open Up by Asking Questions
Ask open-ended questions to start a conversation and keep it flowing. If possible, make your questions person- and situation-dependent. Do you work in the same industry? Then ask industry-specific questions.
If you’re meeting someone for the first time in an unfamiliar place, rely on the tried and true “What do you do?” Or tweak it slightly by asking, “What field are you in?” “What do you do when you’re not working?” or even “What do you want to do next?”
Your goal is to uncover what you have in common and what value you might bring to that person.
Ask Their Opinion
Asking someone’s opinion on something is a surefire conversation starter. Choose whatever topic you’d like—politics, the latest news from Wall Street—make sure it’s something you want to talk about, too. If you’re not genuinely curious about it, you won’t fully engage in the exchange, and your chance of forging a real connection diminishes.
Follow the Other Person’s Lead
Even the most curious people, full of probing questions, sometimes find themselves in conversations where they suddenly hit a brick wall. When that happens, change the course of the conversation by following the lead of the person you’re talking to.
If you hit a topic and the other person’s energy flags, move on to a new topic until you land on one that helps the dialogue flow again. The more energetic responses you get, the better your chances for continuing to probe in ways that build connection.
Learn the Art of the Probe
Probes are excellent conversation that continues once the initial dialogue spark has been lit.
There are three main types of probes:
A clarifying probe:
Effectively demonstrates that you’re paying attention. Re-phrase or summarize what you’ve heard and ask if you’ve understood it correctly.
A rational probe:
Seeks to understand the reasoning behind a stated choice or action. In other words, it asks, “How come?” This is a better choice than “Why?” since it’s less likely to put someone on the defensive.
An expansion probe:
Delves for more information about a given response, epitomized in the classic phrase “Tell me more.”
Don’t let your curiosity tip over into a machine gun questioning style. Bombarding people with rapid queries, regardless of your enthusiasm, will make them feel as if they need to protect themselves, and they’ll stay guarded.
Conversations are two-sided dialogues. Sprinkling in information about yourself is important, making you more likable, increasing your chances of discovering commonalities, and making the person you’re talking to feel comfortable enough to share.
Google With Restraint
Thanks to the Internet, searching for every bit of information you can before meeting a person is easy. Yet how genuinely curious can you be if you know all the answers? Knowing so much about a person in advance might make the encounter awkward and forced.
Better advice? Do enough research to have a solid background knowledge base, but don’t go overboard. You want there still to be plenty you want to know because, after all, this is the essence of curiosity.
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