In his usually excellent Legal Marketing blog, Tom Kane today referred to an article entitled "55 Great Questions to Ask Someone You Just Met". Having read the article and reviewed the questions, I can recommend that you should only use them if you want to strike people as intrusive, more than a little odd, and also kind of creepy. The key point that the article misses is that a good conversation, anywhere, with anyone, is not about talking -- it's about listening. You have to say things that demonstrate that you're paying attention. These 55 questions don't do this.
Here are a few of them:
"What's your favorite smell/thing to do on a rainy day/cereal/childhood TV show?"
"What was the first job you ever had/the best prank you ever pulled off/the last movie you saw?"
"Are you a window person or an aisle person?"
You get the idea.
The problem with these questions is not that they're especially intrusive, or that there's anything really wrong with them. The problem is that they are apropos of absolutely nothing. They're completely random. Which tells the person you're speaking with that you are not listening to them. Which is death to any conversation.
The number-one element in any great conversation is that someone is paying very close attention -- they're listening carefully. This has to be reflected in what they say, particularly the questions. Unless the questions are fueled by information gleaned by listening, the conversation will turn into something from Rain Man, fast.
Marshall Goldsmith has written about this. Here's his take on the question:
To learn from people, you have to
listen to them with respect. Again, not as easy to do as you might imagine. It
too requires the use of unfamiliar muscles.
Has this ever happened to you? You're reading a book, watching TV, or shuffling papers while your significant other is talking to you. Suddenly you hear, "You're not listening to me."
You look up and say, "Yes I am." And calmly provide a verbatim playback of everything said to prove that you were listening and that your companion in life is... wrong.
What have you accomplished by this virtuosic display of your multitasking skills? Was it smart? No. Does your partner think more highly of you? Not likely. Is anyone impressed? Hardly.
The only thing going through your partner's mind is, "Gee, I thought you weren't listening. But now I realize it's a much deeper issue. You're a complete jerk."
This is what happens when we listen without showing respect. It's not enough to keep our ears open; we have to demonstrate that we are totally engaged.
The last sentence is the whole point. If you're going to have a conversation with someone you just met, you have to listen to them, and the things you say have to reflect that. You cannot just bomb away with random questions, as if it were a college admissions interview. You have to hear them, and prove that you hear them.