The last two episodes have been on the topic of powering through discomfort to make authentic connections as the basis for EPIC conversations. If you missed those episodes, you can click the links in the show notes below. Hopefully, after listening in, you are convinced of your need to expand your connections, but not connection for connection sake. Rather, intentional connections. When you meet a person, there is one question, the one question you should never ask when meeting someone new. Do you know what it is?
The One Question To Avoid
Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of good ideas about the types of questions that are good to initiate engagement. It’s not one-size-fits-all, but there are a variety of conversation starters that will make you look like a star when it comes to talking with strangers. But first, the one question above all others that you must avoid when starting conversations with someone new: “So, what do you do?”
Why avoid it? Well, for starters, think about a recent graduate (high school or college). Maybe they know what they would like to be doing, but that’s not at all what they are currently doing. Think about it: MBA student with a four-year degree in English who wants to teach English as a second language to refugees but is currently working 20 hours a week as a student adviser for the college.
So, do you think it’s very relevant that she is a student advisor? As a result, is she deeply satisfied at the moment? Or how about a new young married who is trying to make ends meet by nannying. Do you think he wants to tell you he’s providing babysitting services? Therefore, they don’t want to answer the question and it’s quite possibly the reason they don’t want to meet anyone new.
You’ve probably been there yourself – what I’m doing doesn’t define me. It doesn’t represent who I am or what I’m passionate about. I don’t really want to unload on this stranger about how I’m doing the last thing on earth that I ever thought I would be doing, but…here I am. Yuck. I hate even talking about this!
There are other reasons to avoid this question. David Burkus, the author of a fantastic new book that I recommend, called Friend of a Friend, says that multiplex connections are WAY more valuable than a singular work connection.
A multiplex connection is one where you have more than one thing in common with a person. So for example, you both enjoy cross-fit. Or maybe camping trips at a particular out-of-the-way, hard-to-find location. Maybe you are both involved with community service projects. No matter what it is that makes the multiplex connection, according to David Burkus, research shows that this connection is, and remains, stronger.
David says that a question like “so, what do you do?” frames this as a “work only” contact and kills the multiplex value that very well could strengthen the connection going forward. I hope a light bulb is going off in your head. You aren’t avoiding work-related conversation or topics; rather, you are lowering the priority of that topic. Don’t worry, you’ll get to it!
The “so, what do you do connection” is a handy go-to, right? You might think “whew, dodged a bullet by coming up with a question, ANY question to break the awkward silence” but the reality is you’ve positioned the conversation in a way that you might not have intended. It’s okay. That’s why we are talking about it on this episode.
As a leader, you want to direct the conversation intentionally – you don’t waste effort or time. By initiating with a great question, you are going to learn something about the person that possibly no one else in the room will know.
How To Be The Most Interesting Person In The Room
It doesn’t really matter which of the questions above you choose to use to initiate your next discussion. Here’s what matters WAY more than which of the excellent questions you use: be genuinely interested in their response. Here’s the way to become the most interesting person in the room. Be the person most interested in others, especially the one you are speaking to at the moment. This little secret will make you the most popular team leader in your company, the most sympathetic CEO your organization has ever had, the most brilliant operator who ever worked this piece of machinery here EVER!
If you will be interested in what people say, they will leave your conversation thinking “wow, that person genuinely cares about me, my circumstance, my condition.” Who doesn’t want to feel understood! Strangely, they will leave that conversation thinking how interesting YOU are. I know – it doesn’t make sense. Trust me though, this works.
So what should you ask instead? Well, there are lots of options. I’m going to share a few I’ve learned over the years and then wrap up with a few more from Mr. Burkus.
First, FORM. It’s a simple acrostic where the F stands for Family. Do you have a significant other? Where did you meet him or her? Do you have any children? If there was one thing that you could do differently with your spouse/child, what would it be?
The O in FORM stands for Occupation. You don’t have to ask “so, what do you do” and you certainly don’t have to ask it now. You will eventually get to it, so feel free to skip and come back later. Here are some questions to consider: when you were a child, what occupations most enthralled you? What were you sure would be the most amazing thing to do with your life? Did you imagine a particular lifestyle? What made that so attractive? How did you get started in your current job? What’s the most fulfilling part of your current role? What frustrates you about your current role?
The R in FORM stands for Recreation. What do you do for fun? What was the last vacation you took together as a family? Where would you LOVE to go on vacation? If you could take a day (or a week!) and spend it doing absolutely anything, what would that be? I love the exercise that Ray Edwards takes people through in his workshops. He asks attendees to describe what your perfect day looks like…in detail, from the time you get up until the time you go to bed, how would you spend that day? If you could take your team out for any activity AWAY from work, and purely for fun, what would you choose?
The M in FORM stands for Message or Motivation. What one thing gets you up every morning? What’s the most important thing in your life right now? How does that one thing shape your approach to each day? We all know that a leader can destroy your motivation. So, what could your manager do that would cause you to go the extra mile for her? Can you think of a time when what you thought would motivate you, didn’t? Why do you think that was?
Mike Kim’s Big Three
Mike Kim likes to use three classic questions that are guaranteed to get people talking.
What are you excited about right now?
Isn’t that a great question? The potential answers are endless and will lead to a really interesting conversation. Eyes will sparkle, the face will brighten, hope returns! Try this question!
What breaks your heart?
This one can dampen the mood a bit. It’s equally important to the first though because it reminds us that all is not right in the world. There is room for improvement and we can play a part in that.
What pisses you off?
It’s the thing that really gets you riled up? What angers you? That should lead to contemplating “what are you going to do about it?”
More Alternatives From David Burkus
David Burkus wrote an article for Harvard Business Review where he offers 8 Questions to Ask Someone Other Than “What Do You Do?” Here are a few that I really like:
What are you looking forward to?
What’s the best thing that happened to you this year?
Where did you grow up?
Who is your favorite superhero?
A small play on this question might be what superhero or star did you want to be when you were a child? Subsequently, it can lead to a shared connection or two in the reason for why the other person chose that particular character. Conversely, it will reveal why they’re not really into superheroes.
I’ve also asked people what pets they had growing up and how that has impacted their desire for pets as adults.
And finally, this one is my favorite question today: what’s the most important thing I should know about you?
Who doesn’t want to answer that one? It will require a bit more thought than the others, but it’s loaded with awesomeness. It’s bold, so you have to choose wisely about when to use it, but really lets a person tell you something significant about themselves!
You don’t have any excuses now. You are loaded with great questions that will help you next time you are in the company of strangers. Which one was your favorite? Now, make a plan to use it!
Resources Mentioned In This Episode:
Mike Kim’s website
David Burkus Harvard Business Review article 8 Questions to Ask Someone Other Than “What Do You Do?”
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