Go to a company party or social or networking event and you're bound to hear the obligatory and predictable What do you do? and Where are you from? questions designed to save you from the awkwardness of silence.
I don't know about you, but I'm sick of them. While some people prefer uncomfortable small talk that doesn't evolve into anything substantial, I think small talk serves a small purpose: to spark conversations that will naturally evolve between two curious and authentic people not afraid of taking it deeper, like peeling the conversational onion.
Perhaps I'm in the minority (I did say "authentic people"), so let me expand on how even science agrees with this idea.
Deepening your social connections takes genuine curiosity
Todd Kashdan of George Mason University and his colleagues have found that curious people connect better. Plain and simple, people are more easily attracted and feel socially closer to individuals who display curiosity.
In one study by Kashdan, people were told to have intimate conversation or small talk with other participants they had never met. After actually engaging in these types of conversations, "the more curious people felt closer to their partner in both situations, while less curious people did not."
To drive the point home, Kashdan says, "When you show curiosity and you ask questions, and find out something interesting about another person, people disclose more, and share more, and they return the favor, asking questions of you."
No small talk allowed
Some businesses and social gatherings have sprung up on the premise of fostering more humanity and human connection around organized meals. One startup based out of Hong Kong that has received press has two strict rules for its dinner guests: no phones and no small talk.
Other groups across the country host Jefferson-style dinners, at which people get together to have whole-table conversation; one person speaks at a time to the whole table and small talk is completely banned.
Can this transfer to your business networking meeting or cocktail party? Only as far as the people who attend are willing to take the initiative and make the conversation about others--the curiosity factor.
Listen, people love to talk about themselves--if they have something worth talking about, that adds value to the conversation. This selfless act of putting the spotlight on someone else makes you the more interesting person in the room.
4 rules of social engagement
To take full advantage of this idea in action, you need a generous surplus of interesting and engaging questions that will lead to equally interesting and engaging conversations. Before you scroll for the questions at the end of this article, it's important to know four rules of engagement:
1. Make your questions open-ended enough to trigger an intriguing story.
Ask questions that will trigger stories about a journey to a foreign country, funding for the startup of someone's dreams, a special talent someone has to improve the lives of others, etc. Ask about someone's past as a way to introspectively draw out a unique story from that person.
2. Choose positive questions.
Avoid political or religious questions or anything that triggers the potential for negative reactions. You want questions that put the conversation on a positive note right off the bat, giving the other person a chance to reflect on something he or she is happy or excited about.
3. Make sure that your questions help the other person feel important.
The best conversations with someone you just met are initiated by your wanting to learn about that person: what they do, how they do it, and why they do it. This goes back to having a high curiosity quotient. By wanting to learn from someone -- even someone younger and less experienced than you -- you will immediately make an positive first impression.
4. Choose questions that will build up momentum.
Offer up some casual questions that set the mood, build momentum, and establish quick rapport before you dive into the deep end.
Here are 11 "can't miss" questions to get you started.
11 questions to start exceptional conversations
1. Tell me about yourself.
2. What's your story?
(The two broad startup questions above let others lead you to whom they truly are and where they want to go in the conversation.)
3. What absolutely excites you right now?
4. What's the most important thing I should know about you?
5. What are you currently reading?
6. What do you think is the driving force in your life?
7. What's the best thing that's happened to you this year/month/week?
8. If you had the opportunity to meet one person you haven't met, who would it be, why, and what would you talk about?
9. When and where were you happiest in your life?
10. If you could know the absolute and total truth to one question, what question would you ask?
11. How can I be most helpful to you right now?
(The last question on this list is not a conversational starter but a conversation ender; it's reserved for parties who have hit it off. A sure way to elevate the conversation to something even more substantial is to offer the other person real-life help in an area that will be mutually beneficial.)