An Eclectic Human
A newsletter about design, community, and being a human

1.21 Getting them to talk

Rachael wrote back with a great addition to last week’s discussion on contentment and improving yourself:

I think there’s also an element of realism that brings contentment. Chasing after fantasies that were never real seems like it cannot lead to a sense of arrival or satisfaction. I’ve lived with people who were never happy with progress, great or small. It got me anxious and disappointed just watching them. In contrast, a view that accepts the present for what it really is and embraces limitations on what is possible with available resources seems much more satisfying. The pursuits are actually attainable. On top of that, realism makes processes more meaningful. The process required to change is not some random, magic formula unrelated to the result. You are literally effecting the changes you want to see. You can sense the real impact of your actions if you’re open to it.

I totally agree, and I think this is a more complete solution to the dichotomy. Being realistic with your potential and limitations can be empowering.

• • •

I spend a lot of time asking and answering questions. I ask questions of myself, of my friends, of the youth I teach. There are questions about why my code works (or doesn’t), questions about how people are doing, questions intended to lead someone to a discovery. Sometimes I ask questions of you, dear reader. One of my favorite sections of the operations manual I used for two years as a religious missionary was about how to ask questions.

Even after all that thinking and training, asking good questions is still difficult for me.

Two weeks ago, the Uncommon In Common dispatch was about questions. (I’ve mentioned Uncommon before. It’s a fabulous newsletter, and one of the sources of inspiration for starting Eclectic Human. You should subscribe if you don’t already.) That email discussed, “What are the ingredients of a great question?” I’ll let you read the whole version there, but these were the four points. Great questions

  1. Are specific,
  2. Are unusual,
  3. Don’t make a point, and
  4. Show that you were listening last time.

One of the critical pieces of empathy is getting the other person to talk while you listen intently. And I’m learning that asking creative, incisive, understanding, kind questions are the best way to get people to talk. If you show that you’re listening and really care about what they say, you create an environment where they will open up and give you an opportunity to strengthen them.

The end of that Uncommon dispatch asked, “What do you wish people would ask you, but no one ever does?” The responses are delightful and well worth a read. My favorite is from Nick: “What is it like to be able to hear?” His explanation is insightful.

This idea of finding good questions that make people feel your love reminded me of an essay I read back in August called “A Better Way to Introduce Your Friends at Parties“ by Cadence Turpin. Here’s what she wrote:

What if instead of introducing your friend as Jennifer the nurse, you started introducing her as Jennifer, one of most thoughtful people you know, or Jennifer the friend who helped you move in when you didn’t know a soul in this city.

Introducing your friends for who they are rather than focusing on what they do will remind them they are loved before and beyond their titles. It’s an easy way to remind them that you see them for their hearts instead of their accomplishments.

This is something I want to try. Meeting new people often involves a standard litany of questions about place of origin, occupation, family status, residence, etc. I understand the usefulness of these questions in establishing context and finding common ground. But sometimes I wish I could get a little more creative and personal with those questions. It’s something I’m still thinking about.

• • •

What is your favorite question to ask when you meet someone new?

—Steve