Intrusiveness vs. showing interest: how to ask questions

In the December issue of Chicago magazine there’s a short piece on how to make small talk at parties. Anne Libera, director of comedy studies at Columbia College, suggests asking, “What’s the weirdest food your family eats on a regular basis?” or “Tell me about the most exciting thing you ever did as a teenager.”

I wonder what following her advice would do to my reputation among some people for asking too many questions. My mother once said that talking to me is like being interviewed. A fellow Chicago Greeter blurted out, “Marianne, you ask so many questions!” I recall that I was asking him when he would finish training and start taking tours on his own.

I felt scolded — but also confused. Isn’t it a good thing to show interest in the other person?

Maybe how I asked questions could use fine-tuning. I decided to look for online tips. But first I wanted reassurance that not everyone looks on questioning as a bad thing.

In Psychology Today, professor and author David Ludden advised readers not to be “concerned that their questioning will come off as intrusive.” Ludden said researchers have found that “people who asked more questions, especially follow-up questions, were more liked.” Therefore, Ludden offered this advice: “Get your conversation partner talking, listen closely, and follow up. This person may not learn a lot about you but could still like you more because you’ve met an emotional need to be heard and responded to.”

A Chicago Tribune article titled “50 ways you can be a kinder person” included this tip: “Ask more questions. People love talking about themselves, so it’s nice to take a general interest in the people that you meet. Ask questions about their lives in addition to talking about your own. Make small talk with those around you by asking engaging questions (and follow-ups) about their lives. Not only will you let your friends know you care about them, but you just might make some new friends along the way!”

Having bolstered my ego, I still thought about whether my questioning style might be improved. A Quora discussion was about this very topic. “Some people around me feel like I am interrogating them,” said the person who wrote in for tips on “an easier way” to converse. The following suggestions, found there and elsewhere online, are helpful to anyone wanting to improve their conversational skills, not only to us supposed inquisitors.

• When you receive an answer to a question, try to input something of your own before asking a follow-up question. Maybe you’ll prompt a give-and-take and won’t need to ask a follow-up. In the example mentioned on Quora, the other person is found to be a doctor. Instead of immediately asking where they practice, you say, “Oh I wanted to be a doctor before I decided to become [whatever you are]. I felt like it would be awesome to help people.” (Ideally, you’d come up with something better than this trite comment.)

• The previous tip may work even better with opinions. If you ask someone’s opinion about something, continue with your own opinion to generate a discussion.

• Think of ways to make a statement or an observation instead of asking a question. The other person will feel that he or she has a choice about whether to respond to a statement, whereas questions demand answers.

• Choose open-ended questions to receive long answers over close-ended questions that elicit mere fact. Instead of “Isn’t the weather great?” you might ask, “What do you like to do when it’s so lovely outdoors?”

• Be sensitive to signals that you’re going into areas the other person doesn’t want to discuss.

• Let the conversational lead swing back and forth between you and the other person.

• Don’t keep pressing if the person is unresponsive. You’re not going to click with everyone.

So, how would I do over the episode when the Chicago Greeter-in-training became annoyed with me? Instead of asking him when he would start leading his own tours, I might have said, “I remember back when I was shadowing a couple of Greeters before I could take my own tours. Observing one of them was intimidating because he seemed to know about everything. I thought if that’s the standard, I wouldn’t be able to meet it.”

Maybe he would have appreciated a statement that showed some vulnerability, and we might have started discussing what’s expected of Greeters. On the other hand, maybe he wouldn’t have liked that I turned the focus back on myself.

But whatever the result, it probably would have been better than his angry retort.



“[T]his shows how easy the president of the United States is to manipulate. He had agreed to a deal. Then some of his toughest supporters, Limbaugh and Coulter and some of the team in the FOX News morning programs, came out against it, and he changed his view like a puppet on a string. It was really extraordinary, a sign of weak leadership.”
Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, on Trump’s changing his mind about a spending bill that did not fund his proposed border wall

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  • This is the skill everyone should have. A right question is a half of an answer! Read this post if you want to know more!

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