Guidelines for Using Questions in Conversation

By Barbara B. Varenhorst, Ph.D
From An Asset Builder's Guide to Training Peer Helpers, Search Institute, 2003

(Handout, page 50)

  • To start a conversation, you usually have to ask a few closed informational questions such as: Where are you from? What grade are you in? Do you have any brothers or sisters? What are some of your interests? Usually the answers to such questions give enough information to explore more personal topics.
  • You “try out” different subjects during the first part of a conversation with a new person because you’re trying to discover what topic that person feels comfortable discussing. Clues to what an individual might want to talk about include how he or she emphasizes a particular response and when he or she gives more information.
  • Saying “Tell me something about yourself” to draw out another person doesn’t work well; it sounds mechanical to a new acquaintance and requires the other person to do the work. He or she must guess what might interest you, and that can be un­nerving. Asking what kinds of interests the person has provides a focus for her or his reply.
  • Acknowledge when your new friend names an interest or topic that is totally for­eign to you. Then follow with, “Would you tell me something about.. . ?“ Listen for details in the explanation to give you clues about what to ask next.
  • You then can ask additional open-ended questions such as:
    • How did you get involved in this interest?
    • What makes this interest special to you?
    • What is the most fascinating thing that has happened to you related to this interest?
    • What have you learned from pursuing this interest?
  • If the topic is something other than a personal interest, you can ask specific questions such as:
    • What is it about this subject that frustrates you?
    • What do you feel are the differences between our two cultures?
    • What affected you the most about the book you were reading?
    • What are some of the things you look forward to after you graduate?
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