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Five ways to amp up your holiday conversations

December 23, 2012

This holiday season if you ask better questions than “How’s work?”, “How are the kids?” or “Would you please pass the yams?” you will be rewarded with vastly more interesting conversations.

Originally published in April 2012, this blog post has been one of my most popular. I reuse ornaments so I thought I’d dust off this post as well since the art of great conversation is always timely, especially when friends and family gather. I hope it helps you to learn new things about the people you thought you knew best.

Last night at the dinner table my kids starting talking about wanting to rule the world so I asked “OK, if you DID rule the world, what is the one thing you would change?” My six-year old responded, “I would let dogs into all buildings.” My almost nine-year old said, “I would have free videogames for a month every year.” My husband said he would ban all guns and I couldn’t decide between eliminating borders (because that’s what people fight over) or income disparity. No matter what the response is, it’s a great exercise in listening, in understanding another’s perspective and in appreciating different points of view.

From my dinner table to yours, I wish you rich conversations over the holidays and health and prosperity in the New Year.


Originally posted: Put down the smart phone and ask a great question

April 1, 2012

You Should Have AskedAt a business lunch, I noticed that almost everyone left their phones on the table in front of them. Are they waiting for someone more interesting to call? In a pub on St. Patrick’s Day, at least half the people were holding phones, telling others… what? That they are having such a great time? If that’s true, why don’t they put the phone down and say that to the people in front of them? I have no objection to texting a friend so they can meet up with you but when you are intent on documenting all your moments for people who are not there, aren’t you missing out on the experience of actually being present, with the people who are there? Or if you are constantly checking your phone to read other people’s Facebook posts, texts, Tweets or e-mails, are you telling the people you are sitting with that you’d rather be elsewhere? Then last week I saw a woman take her iPhone to communion. Seriously…. someone more important than God is going to call, text, Tweet, Facebook or BBM you in the 30 seconds it takes you to walk up there?

Shake it off people! I know it’s our reptilian brain that is easily distracted. It’s the ego that’s fed whenever others respond to your picture, post or Pinterest…. but we are not Pavlove’s Dog. We do not have to react to every flashing light, every beep, every tweet and text.

As my high school French teacher used to say when the bell rang: “Dogs respond to bells. People respond to other people.” So the next time you’re sitting at a lunch, hanging out in a pub or having a meal with friends or family, embrace the opportunity to get to know something new about the people around you, to deepen your relationships and to challenge your assumptions. You can’t do that in a tweet or Facebook post.

In his book, You Should Have Asked, Stewart Knight recounts how asking “Which Canadian do you most admire?” at a family reunion led to a rich conversation about his father’s immigrant roots and political hero and his mother’s literary tastes – two aspects of his parent’s lives he had completely ignored until that day. His book offers an easy approach to creating powerful conversations by asking good questions. Knight writes:

“With powerful conversations, instead of learning where a person lives, you will discover one of their favourite childhood memories. With powerful conversations, instead of knowing what a person does for a living, you will find out what that person does as a passion. You will discover the intricate and fascinating details of what makes that person who they are” (p.38).

Not only will you benefit from a more interesting discussion and a deeper relationship but, according Robert Cialdini author of Influence: Science and Practice, when you identify something you have in common with another person, that similarity leads to liking, reciprocity, stronger networks and a greater ability to accomplish your personal or professional objectives. Within an organization, research from Ken Blanchard found that connectedness to the leader – the extent to which leaders make an effort to build rapport and personal and professional relationships – leads to greater discretionary effort and higher intent to remain with your organization. Connectedness to colleagues – the extent to which colleagues make an effort to build rapport and personal and professional relationships – is also positively correlated with discretionary effort and organizational citizenship behaviours. So people who feel connected to their co-workers are more apt to go the extra mile at work. Bottom line: there are compelling personal and professional reasons to be fascinated by others, to honour their uniqueness and to ditch the small talk:

  1. Ask open ended questions like:
    • What do you like most about what you do?
    • What led you to this type of work/hobby/pursuit?
    • What would you change about your industry/community/legislation/etc?
    • What did you want to be when you were a child?
    To borrow a few from Knight (and he has a ton of great ones):
    • Out of all the jobs in the country, which one do you think would have the most devastating impact on society if those people didn’t show up for work? And what would be the worst day of the year for them to not show up? Why?
    • Ask people why they live, work or travel where they do.
  2. Listen and build your next question on what you have just heard.
  3. Stop worrying that asking questions makes you look like you don’t know anything – you certainly don’t know everything so get over it.
  4. Ask how things work, why they are that way, what makes a process so difficult.
  5. Embrace the opportunity to learn!

Great questions are the ultimate mobile app so use them wherever you go! After reading Knight’s book, my husband started asking our kids a ‘Question of the Night’ at the dinner table and the conversations are fantastic. It gives the kids a chance to practice listening skills and also to respond to a serious question where there’s no right answer. Our favourites include:

  • If you could go anywhere on a family vacation where would we go and why?
  • If you had a superpower, what would it be?
  • When you are a parent, which rules will you enforce in your home?
  • If you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?
  • Who is your favourite character in a book?

To boost our dinner table topic creativity I recently purchased The Box Girls Family Diner Box of Questions. Try these at home, with friends or at the office or leave the cards out on tables during a party and watch the level of conversation rise! Another great resource (that also comes with a mobile App) is the Story Starter Pack. My favourite question here is : “If you could dig a tunnel from your house to anywhere in the neighbourhood/country/world, where would it go?”

You deserve the gift of more fun, meaningful and memorable conversations and the deeper relationships that result from them. Your co-workers, friends and family deserve to feel worthy of your attention. Try it! You can tell everyone about it on social media…. later. And, please tell me…. what’s your favourite “deep question” ? And what happened the last time you asked one?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. December 23, 2012 8:27 pm

    What great questions! I particularly love this one: “If you could dig a tunnel from your house to anywhere in the neighbourhood/country/world, where would it go?” That’s imaginative!

    • December 23, 2012 9:13 pm

      Hello Skip, thanks for visiting my blog and for commenting. I love that question too. It quickly tells you what’s close to people’s hearts.

      The holidays are a great time to ask about people’s favourite traditions, best holiday memories or worst present ever. I just love it when conversations take unexpected turns and it’s an easy way to include people of all ages and backgrounds.

      What’s the best question you’ve been asked?

  2. December 30, 2012 8:04 pm

    Thank you so much. Coming from you, that is high praise indeed!


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