Have you ever run into a coworker in the breakroom and felt a little awkward or uncomfortable?
Maybe you felt like you should try to engage them in a brief conversation, but you didn’t know what to say.
Whether you cross paths in the hallway, are taking a quick break between meetings, or are pouring yourself a cup of coffee or refilling your bottle at the water cooler, you likely have plenty of opportunities to interact with your coworkers.
In these situations, it pays to be prepared with a simple but effective question:
What’s keeping you busy these days?
Since you’re at work, you probably feel like you should be busy completing assignments, so the word “busy” acknowledges the tasks on your to-do list and enables you to stay focused on work-related topics.
Beyond the office, this question is also appropriate for when you run into a friend or acquaintance that you haven’t seen in a while.
You may not know what’s going on in his or her world, so you can’t ask a more specific question.
Starting Conversations with Open-Ended Questions
“What’s keeping you busy these days” is a classic example of an open-ended question.
As with the question “What brings you here?”, you’re not guiding the conversation in a particular direction.
Instead, you’re giving the other person control of the conversation (which is actually a polite thing to do!).
They can decide how much information they want to share.
Their response will help you judge whether they’re ready to engage in conversation with you at this particular moment.
If so, you can start steering the conversation to other topics.
The Best Time to Ask “What’s Keeping You Busy These Days?”
As I mentioned above, you’re most likely going to ask this low-pressure question if it has been a few weeks or even months since you saw your friend or acquaintance.
(Same thing at the office; you wouldn’t ask this question if you just got out of a status meeting!)
If you *do* know what’s going on in the other person’s life or work, then you want to ask a question that’s a little more specific; this shows that you were paying attention.
Think of “What’s keeping you busy these days?” as an invitation to open up dialogue.
As the conversation evolves, you can ask more specific questions and steer the conversation towards other topics.
Keep Your Conversational Goal in Mind When Answering the Question
To create a strong response to “What’s keeping you busy these days?”, be sure to consider your goal for the conversation.
After all, your answer to this question is going to guide the conversation. No pressure, right? ?
I once had a client tell me, “My coworker keeps asking me what’s keeping me busy or what’s new with me. To be honest, I don’t have an interesting response! What’s keeping me busy is my child!”
I want to remind you that you DO NOT have to answer this question literally!
(Literally is when we share the precise, exact truth.)
In this case, a literal answer might be “I have a two year old, and he’s not sleeping. I’m staying up all night, I’m exhausted, and I hate my life!”
As you can imagine, it’s not usually necessary to share these personal details in the workplace.
Or you may not want to tell a casual acquaintance all about your frustrations or challenges.
Rather than answering with the 100% truth, remember your goal for this conversation.
What is necessary or appropriate to share with the other person at this moment in time?
This helps you craft a stronger answer that can get the conversation going.
Rather than answering negatively – such as saying “I’m working on this stupid report for my boss even though it’s a big waste of my time” – think about how your answer can help you connect with the other person.
Leave Room for More Related Questions
A strong answer to this question will give enough details to answer the question while still encouraging more questions.
A vague response doesn’t engage the other person because they haven’t learned enough details to find something in common.
An exact, precise answer often ends the conversation because there’s nothing else to say.
Your response should give the other person a chance to ask questions if they’d like to go deeper into the conversation, or allow them to share their own experiences.
This is why you don’t want to just say “I’ve been busy,” but specify and explain what you’ve been busy doing (and even better, why).
From there, they can ask clarifying questions for more details, ask for your advice on strategies and approaches, share stories and compare your experience with theirs, and more.
Examples of Stronger Answers to This Question
“What’s keeping you busy these days?” is a question that you ask someone you already know; this person is more invested in what’s occupying your time or curious about what you’re passionate about.
This is why you should see this question as an opportunity to connect.
The truth is, we all have to do boring things during our day. You might sit at a computer writing reports most of the day, or spend your whole weekend cleaning up after your kids.
But talking about it is pretty boring and doesn’t encourage the other person to continue the conversation with you.
We all understand that much of life is pretty routine and unglamorous – you don’t need to say it!
For example, if someone asks me what’s keeping me busy these days, I’m likely to talk about my professional life.
I might mention that I work with non-native English speakers through online courses and that I share video lessons on YouTube.
In response, the other person might ask, “Wow, how do you do that? How many followers do you have? How do you teach on YouTube? How do you work with people online?”
Even if the truth is that you’re doing a lot of homework, you can share more details about the reason why: maybe you’re studying for an entrance exam or coming up on your last semester of university.
From there, the other person can ask, “What are you interested in studying? What school do you want to go to? What motivates you? How do you avoid procrastination?”
The trick is to give just enough information so that the other person will be able to think of questions to ask you. This will keep the conversation flowing.
Think About How You Can Invite the Other Person Into the Conversation
In addition to having a conversational goal and giving just enough detail to invite questions, you want to think about how you can invite the other person into the conversation.
Can you share an experience that the other person may relate to?
Since this question is exchanged between friends, acquaintances, or coworkers, you probably already have something in common!
If your colleague from marketing asks the question, you can respond “Well, I’m working with a new client, and I’m interested in hearing if the marketing department might be able to help me.”
This is a simple, straightforward way to invite the other person into the conversation.
If you truly don’t have a good answer to the question, ask “What about you? What’s keeping you busy these days?”
Remember if you don’t find a way to invite the other person in, the conversation will probably end there.
Better Questions Than “What’s Keeping You Busy These Days?”
We can’t talk about this question without addressing the word “busy.”
Personally, I don’t even like the word; Americans often talk way too much about how busy they are!
In fact, complaining about busy you are is actually a point of pride, suggesting you’re in high demand; it has been called the “busy trap.”
So if, like me, you’d like to avoid using the word “busy,” ask a question like the following:
- What’s inspiring you these days?
- What’s keeping you inspired these days?
- What’s motivating you these days?
- What’s keeping you motivated these days?
- What’s keeping your attention these days?
- Where are you focusing your attention these days?
- What are you curious about right now?
- What’s piquing your curiosity right now?
- What’s making you interested in the world these days?
These are better questions because they direct the person to a more positive, even passionate topic.
While someone might want to hear about your work, family or school (the most typical topics when catching up with someone), they might also be interested in hearing what matters to you.
And let’s be honest, what’s most important right now is not always work, family or school – these parts of our lives can often feel like obligations!
While our work, studies, and families are essential elements of our identities, we are multidimensional and have many other passions and interests.
Rather than listing off your upcoming tasks and projects, you may want to share a piece of music that you love, a podcast or TED talk that inspired you, or a hobby you have.
In fact, these are more likely to spark an interesting conversation because they go beyond the day-to-day routine.
Talking about creative people, entrepreneurship, or humanitarian work often leads to more motivating, inspiring conversations.
When you reveal your interests, you’re much more likely to have a deeper, more memorable conversation.
As an added bonus, when the conversation flows easily, you sound more fluent!
Why You Want to Focus on What’s Happening Right Now
Last but not least, let’s talk about the phrase “these days.”
In order to encourage the person to share something that’s happening in their life right now and emphasize that you want a current answer, be sure to add “these days” to the end of the question.
(In fact, the question sounds unnatural without “these days.”)
You’re not asking about events six months, a year, or even five or ten years ago. You’re also not asking them to predict the future.
You simply want to know what’s important to them at this precise moment.
After all, we’re more likely to have more interesting thoughts and feelings about current events because they are on our mind.
So now it’s your turn! After hearing about why this simple question can be so effective, I want to hear how you answer it!
You can choose to talk about what’s keeping you busy, inspired, or motivated these days.
Leave a comment sharing your current interests and be sure to leave your response open enough so that I can respond to you!
Remember, you want to share something that you really do care about in order to invite the other person into the conversation. Give it a try in the comments below.