Want to know the secret to great authentic communication?
(This is also the secret to innovation and confidence, but we will focus primarily on how it works with communication.)
I was listening to a new podcast recently called the Mystery Show wherein the main woman is trying to solve minor mysteries for people. The first podcast is about figuring out what happened to a video store and the second podcast is about trying to ask Britney Spears a question about a book she was seen carrying. The premise is intriguing and fun and Starlee Kine (the detective/podcaster) is personable and fun, but that isn’t what struck me the most. A big part of the show is Starlee calling up people connected to the case and asking them questions, and what is amazing about this is what they choose to tell her. She is able to get very deep with every interview, regardless of how random the connection is. In the second podcast she gets a customer service agent from Ticketmaster to talk about himself in a way that is sweet, vulnerable and deeply human.
How did she do it?
She was curious. Genuinely and appropriately interested in these people’s lives, which was the key to having them open themselves up to her and talk about themselves to a complete stranger.
(I guess they never watched the after-school specials)
The trouble with curiosity is that it can’t be faked.
Or rather it can be, but the results are usually flat and uninteresting. Sometimes it is even painfully awkward and uncomfortable.
Think Chevy Chase’s ill-fated bid to do a late night talk show in the 90s:
(You can watch it if you want. I already lived through it once.)
Why are Chevy Chase’s questions so flat? Why is the mood so uncomfortable? It’s mostly because he has no curiosity in Goldie Hawn. He really doesn’t seem interested in what she has to say.
This is radically different from what can happen when someone is really curious about you. The invitation to share something about you and your background, where you came from, what you like, what motivates you, what scares you, is one of the most generous invitations you can give another person.
If you are interested in knowing how to make connections, be seen as a confidant and feel comfortable when talking with people, learn how to be curious about them. And then learn how to listen.
(or not, your choice)
What does this look like?
1. Is the question borne from curiosity or from judgment?
Often questions like “where did you go to college?” and “what were your SAT scores” and “what do you do for a job” are the lamest conversation starters. Not only are these genuinely boring questions, they are essentially competitive in nature, an attempt to learn where people fit in the social hierarchy and a way to identify who we think they are.
When we ask questions from a place of judgment, the other person will often get defensive or closed without really knowing why. Questions borne out of curiosity usually open doors and get people talking about themselves. They are devoid of judgment because curiosity is open to the uncertainty of not knowing. People who are curious want to learn.
2. Everyone has at least one fascinating story that would break your heart if you knew it
They might not know that they have an interesting story or rather they might be so used to people asking questions and not listening to them, that they will block you at first. Ask people about their first loves, what they would do if they didn’t have to work, what their parents were like or where they have traveled and they will most likely tell you more than you could imagine.
When was the last time someone really asked you a question that was an invitation for you to share something important about yourself? (Therapists don’t count)
(nor does Bob Newhart)
For those of you who are nervous about striking up totally random conversations with strangers at parties or at company events, take some comfort from this small fact. Most people (even those who say that they don’t) like to talk about themselves and will if given the opportunity. They just need the right kind of invitation.
3. Being curious takes courage
The act of asking someone a real question (like what Starlee Kine does in the Mystery Show) is a vulnerable act for the questioner as well as the person being asked. We have to step out of our norms and risk being exposed to someone else’s beautiful mess of a life. It takes courage because to be truly curious means revealing something about ourselves and what interests us. You will know what questions I am talking about when you take the risk to ask someone something personal that feels just a little outside the comfort zone. You don’t have to pry or ask nosy questions, but you do need to be willing to take the risk of telling someone that you see them and that you will listen.
This is perhaps the most important part. If you are going to be curious, and they are going to share, then you had better listen and stay open to what they are saying. People have amazing stories inside of them that they keep hidden because they figure that no one really wants to hear what they have to say. If you are willing to be one of those people who listens, then you will both experience the conversation as a gift.
Curiosity is the key to making connections, earning trust and feeling more engaged. Whether you are in sales, client relations, learning to network, interviewing for jobs or just want to make friends, your genuine interest and willingness to listen will help you differentiate yourself from the countless others who are only out there talking about themselves.
(I’m sorry, was I yawning?)