A few weeks ago I attended a networking event where un expected speaker turned up. He was introduced by our guest speaker of the evening as a Professional Speaker from Canada, Stuart Knight, specialising in the art of powerful conversations. During his talk, he delivered several golden nuggets, one of which was that the two biggest hurdles to have any conversation at all are fear and technology. Fear to speak to strangers – because our parents told us for years and years to not talk to any strangers – and our mobile devices that are so handy not to have to talk to anyone at all. How many people are fixated upon their phones all day long? If it weren’t forbidden in the yoga studio, I think, some people would even talk their mobile onto their mat. I regularly watch women coming out of class – bathed in sweat – and the first thing they do is checking their text messages in front of their locker.

With humour and body language Knight emphasised his findings from his peripatetic lifestyle and talking to over one million people all over the world in the past ten years. He challenged us in saying that we determine how fascinating our lives are by how fascinated we are by the people around us. When did we last speak to a stranger? This question preoccupied my head after this evening for a while. Conversations at the cash register in the supermarket came to my mind – conversations that I found utterly strange when I first arrived in this country eight years ago. Why was the cashier asking me what I had planned in the afternoon? What could I learn from such a five-minute conversation with a random person?

Here are the five things to remember, according to Stuart Knight, to make any conversation as powerful as possible:

1. Learn something new about your conversation partner.
2. Find out what you have in common.
3. Make it a memorable conversation for them.
4. Be prepared to have the best conversation.
5. Have fun and bring a smile on their face.

Asking the right questions
Since I heard Knight speaking, I tried to apply his recipe for successful conversations with my family, friends and total strangers. I noticed that it takes some practise and that I tend to talk a lot if I met new people, mostly about what I do, like, prefer, think, experienced. As a woman, I love to chat with other people, especially other women, and I can go on for hours. Often, during these discussions, I come to a solution to a problem I have been facing, a conclusion how to move forward with a specific thing, or I get a new idea for something I am working on. So I focused on asking more than talking about myself.

According to Stuart Knight, magic things can happen when you apply the five steps for powerful conversations to your life and learn to ask the right questions. In his book You Should Have Asked he elaborates on three types of questions that support powerful conversations: Stock Questions, Part-Two Questions and Creative Questions.

Most people focus on Stock Questions when they first meet someone, and the conversation ends after a few minutes. Examples for Stock Questions are: Where do you live? What do you do? Where do you come from? Do you like your job? Do you have a family? They help you find out different things about your conversation partner but, because we tend to jump from one topic to the next, these questions don’t lead to anything further, let alone an engaging conversation where both parties leave with the content feeling that they had the best conversation ever.

Knight suggests further that you should learn the art of asking Part-Two Questions. These are the ones that pick up the answer from your conversation partner to form a new question and directing the conversation into a topic that the person is passionate about. Active listening plays a major role in this game. By learning to ask Part-Two Questions you have the opportunity to find out something new about your conversation partner and, at the same time, to contribute your take on things to this topic; called ‘dipping’ in Knight’s formula. Be ready to be surprised, as you might end up on a totally different topic than the one you started with. Finally, there are the creative questions; questions that make the other person think and not say anything at all for a moment. In his Profile Writing workshop, Journalist David Leser called those questions “beautiful questions”, questions that enhance the conversation and can lead to the most interesting answers that trigger a new question. “Be prepared to go with the flow” he suggested.

Practise, practise, practise
Since I heard Knight’s presentation and read his book, I try to consciously apply this method of having great conversations in my life. The easiest way, of course, seems to be your family. Easier said than done. In my case, I live with three men who are – for several reasons – not very keen to talk about anything. My husband is preoccupied with his work pretty much all the time and when he comes home he switches the TV on ‘to relax’ as he explains. My teenage son is a master in short answers no matter what kind of question you ask him. My 11-year-old rolls his eyes when I ask him ‘how was school today?’ Can anyone relate to this?

I am not giving up, though. There are many opportunities during a day to talk to your kids – at the breakfast table or in the car after pickup, for example – or a stranger in a café, a shop or at the cash register in the supermarket. And if you find out something we have in common, the conversation is in full swing. You never know who you are going to meet and what might come out of a conversation – even if it only lasts five minutes.

Happy conversing everybody!

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