I received a letter from a listener recently about something many people have trouble with. She wanted to know how to keep a conversation going.
I am based in Melbourne, Australia and came across your pubic speaker material about 3 months ago. I can honestly say that putting into practice what I’ve learned on your podcast and smart talk interviews has had a massive impact on my life. I especially love how you frame questions to get people sharing so openly and with enthusiasm, and I wonder if you have some special tips about asking questions to keep a conversation going. Thanks so much.
Shannon, thanks for your question. I think in-person conversation is quickly becoming a lost art! For many people, starting and maintaining a conversation is very uncomfortable, so they simply try to avoid them all together. In fact, I’ve even heard many people say, “I’d rather text than have a conversation!” So what is behind that statement? I think it’s because we like the ability to edit our words, to avoid awkward small talk, and to present our best selves. We like the fact that texting gives us time to create and sculpt responses. We can even consult with others before we respond. Of course, in-person conversation does not allow for that. In-person conversations require us to spontaneously engage with another person.
I applaud you for how you framed your request to me because you obviously understand that a good conversation is about asking questions and sharing stories. People will feel immediately comfortable with you and will open up much more when they see that you're truly interested in them. But keep in mind, the questions must not be an interrogation and they must be appropriate—at the right level for the conversation and for your relationship. Think of conversation depth as progressing from conversation about your immediate environment to roles and responsibilities to professional activities to personal activities to shared culture, goals, values, and emotions. To continue a conversation, you need to stay at the same level or go only one level deeper or one level higher.
For some people they want specific words to say, so I've outlined a few of my favorite conversation continuers:
Conversation Continuers for Interviews
To continue conversation in an interview, you can ask things like:
- What are you looking for in the ideal candidate?
- Why was X a good fit for you?
- How did you get into ... ?
- What is the best part of working at X ... ?
- What's the biggest challenge of your current role ... ?
- Or you can just say, “Ah, that’s interesting. Tell me more.”