What makes a good question great?
Earlier this year, I watched a live workshop with Tim Ferriss, an American entrepreneur who is famous for his podcast where he has fantastic, fascinating conversations with his guests.
He’s known for being an amazing interviewer, so when the audience had a chance to ask him questions, someone asked him, “What makes a good question great?”
Tim had to sit with this deceptively-simple question for a moment. Here was his advice:
A great question comes from listening to the other person and responding to what they said, rather than moving on to the next question on the list.
I LOVE THIS ANSWER.
If you’ve been following my series of articles and video lessons on essential conversation skills, you’ve heard me mention time and again that it’s important to listen carefully to what the other person is saying and respond to *that*.
When we worry about how we sound when speaking another language, we get distracted from what’s going on right in front of us: the conversation!
Listen to Hear and Understand, Not to Respond
A significant part of improving your communication skills in English is learning to listen to hear and understand, rather than listening to respond.
(And let’s be perfectly honest – native speakers also need to learn to do this, myself included. It’s a process.)
Believe it or not, you are much more likely to be seen as a good communicator based on your ability to listen to other people and respond accordingly.
When you just say whatever you’ve prepared in your head without acknowledging the other person’s ideas and opinions, you may actually sound impolite, too direct, or too demanding.
When you ask thoughtful questions in response to what another person has said, you show that you’re a good listener.
Learn to Ask Great Questions in Conversation
This is excellent news for you: you can learn and practice good questions ahead of time.
You can also learn to listen carefully and respond appropriately. (This is often called active listening and is a skill that native English speakers also have to practice!)
When you put the two together, you are able to ask great questions.
I want to encourage you to practice these good questions (you can download 17 examples of more interesting questions here).
When you practice good questions in advance, these questions become part of you and your communication style.
Many English learners find making small talk stressful. Using better questions can significantly help.
When you learn great questions, you already know what you could possibly ask in these casual conversations.
That means you can focus your attention on listening carefully so that you are able to choose questions that are interesting and that are in response to what the other person has to say.
This enables you to create the conversation, rather than control it.
Asking great questions enables you to create a deeper, more interesting conversation with the person that you’re speaking with.
What’s even better? If you’re having a fascinating conversation, the person that you’re talking to isn’t even going to notice your mistakes.
After all, mistakes are a natural, normal part of a spontaneous, engaging conversation.
When your conversation involves asking and answering great questions, the other person is going to be paying attention to what you’re talking about, the questions that you’re asking, how to respond to them, and how to keep the conversation going.
Remember, the whole reason you are speaking English is to connect in conversation with other people!
I want to encourage you to focus on asking good questions, and learning to be a better listener.
When you strengthen both of these skills, you’re going to notice that it’s much easier to have better conversations in English.
How do you feel about asking questions in conversations in English? Have you learned any great questions to use when making small talk? Let us know in the comments.
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