A New Kind of Training – Asking Questions and Expressing Interest in Others

blake-ross-croppedBy Blake Anthony Ross, Lead Front-End Developer

I still remember the exact moment when I had an epiphany that I was a social nincompoop.

I was a senior at Greenville High (class of 2000) sitting in my beloved AP physics classroom around 2:00 PM on a mostly sunny spring day. As seniors, many of us would soon have our early dismissal, and I hoped to catch up to Anna in the parking lot to ask her to prom. At that moment, she was in the same room with me, sitting a couple seats away in our little class of maybe 10 people, talking with some of her friends while I sat quietly on the periphery of cool people’s conversation, myself decidedly uncool.

You may be tempted to think that this story is on a trajectory toward some ravishingly humorous encounter with Anna, but, in fact, the experience of this epiphany was a rather dreary (but insightful!) story. Here’s what happened. I simply sat in my student desk, paying attention but not knowing how to participate in the conversation around me, nerves racing. In a flash, I realized that although I wanted to be able to ask Anna to the prom nestled in some sort of delightful parking lot conversation where the question would just naturally flow from our [nonexistent] supernatural chemistry and my [nonexistent] irresistible charm, the reality was that I had no idea how to sustain conversation.

I think the actual, precise form of the epiphany in that moment was, “Wow. I quite literally have no idea how to talk to girls.” But it struck me as so profoundly true that as I sat with it in the coming hours and days (following Anna’s graciously letting me know that she could not go with me to prom because she already had a date), the epiphany solidified into this golden piece of self-awareness (laden with all the high-school popularity foolishness that you will need to filter out as you read):

“Cool people talk on the phone for tens of minutes at a time. I have no idea how to talk on the phone for more than a minute. Cool people chat about things at the lunch table. I have no idea how to just chat with people at the lunch table. Everyone else seems to know how to talk to people but me.”

This self-awareness-laden insight changed the course of my life.

Once I settled into my belief that I had indeed awakened to something real about myself and that I must do something about it, I set a goal and applied my nerdy scientific self to it. The goal I set for myself was this: I will learn how to hold a 10-minute conversation with someone. Once I knew what I wanted and set myself to the challenge, I began collecting data. I relentlessly studied and observed the dynamics of how people had conversation.

In short order, perhaps even within a week or two, I recall sifting through all my observations and thoughts and landing squarely at this resolve: I was going to learn how to ask questions. More specifically: I was going to learn how to express interest in other people.

And… people! WOW! This resolve to learn how to ask questions and express interest in other people changed the landscape of my relationships dramatically and quickly. I wish I could capture the enormity of my experience for you. It so quickly seemed to change and improve my experience of the social landscape, I’m still astonished at the experience as I reflect on it today.

Utterly contrary to my expectations, my original task of learning how to have a 10-minute conversation with someone proved, in a sense, to be a piece of cake. I could just start asking a person questions and expressing interest in what they were saying, and I was blown away! I wouldn’t have to talk more than a few seconds of those 10 minutes, and to my surprise, people could just ramble on and on as I asked them questions, and I could just listen on and on, feeling the glow that I, Blake, was holding a conversation! (Nevermind how one-sided those “conversations” were.)

Why on earth am I telling you this?

If you will permit me to write for a moment without any verbal cushioning: your coworkers may need you to come to this epiphany, and you may stand to profit tremendously from your own adaptation of this insight. Individuals who can skillfully ask questions and express interest in others possess a rare and precious strength, just like a web designer who is exceptionally skilled at creating award-winning layouts, or event managers who have an exceptional ability to embody hospitality, or creative directors with exceptional talent for seeing and selling ideas, etc.

Just as there are people in the job market without basic computer skills, there are people in the job market who know nothing of the art and skill of question-asking and expressing interest in others. Even closer to home: just as there are people we work with who are not very competent with computers, astonishingly, there are people we work with who are unstudied in the art and skill of question-asking, who, just as I did for the first 18 years of my life, tapped nothing from the stream of wealth that is expressing interest in others and the craftsmanship of questions.

May this not be us! If you are compelled to cultivate this skill or simply refresh yourself, know that there is a ton of material on the subject on the Internet. A solid option would be to watch this simple video about building rapport with people using the FORD method. Whatever you decide to do from here, fellow comrade, let’s train like our careers depended on it!