When it comes to improving our relationships and social skills, conversation starters are a great tool because they help us break the ice and get to know others better.
However, I’ve recently realized that follow-up questions are just as important, especially when talking to people who don’t open up easily.
I have always been a shy introvert, and I don’t open up easily. However, I have noticed that when someone shows curiosity about me, my passions and goals — or anything that makes me tick — it’s easier for me to reveal more about myself. Their genuine interest usually makes me want to spend more time with them, talk to them more, and get to know them better.
As Jeff Haden explains in an article published in Inc Magazine, some people have this innate ability to get you to talk openly. They ask open-ended questions — which makes it easier for you to open up. In particular, I find that follow-up questions tend to make conversations interesting and engaging — even more than conversation starters.
Conversation starters and follow-up questions
Many people are good at using conversation starters, while few people have the habit of also diving deep and showing a genuine interest in what you are sharing with them.
The use of conversation starters, as the name suggests, is limited to the beginning of interactions — or to those moments of awkward silence. They can also be used to keep a conversation going, but switching the topic. So, if you only rely on them during a conversation, you don’t really encourage the other person to open up, and you don’t learn much about them.
Follow-up questions instead, are the ones you can ask when you want to know more about what someone is telling you. These are the questions that make a conversation deeper because by using them, you encourage the other person to share more details about what they are already talking about.
Not asking follow-up questions in a conversation is like reading the intro of a book without reading the rest of it. You miss the most interesting and important part of the book: its actual content.
Below are some great follow-up questions that can help you encourage deep conversation with others.
Have you ever heard of the Five Whys Technique?
The Five Whys Technique is a method used to explore the cause-and-effect relationships underlying a particular issue. It aims to understand the root cause of a problem by repeating the question “Why?” after each answer is given. In other words, each answer forms the basis of the next question.
This method can also be applied to conversations. Asking why more than once in a normal conversation is a great way to encourage someone to open up.
Q: Why do you think you feel this way?
A: Because X happened to me.
Q: Why do you think X makes you feel this way?
A: Because it always makes me feel this way.
Q: Is there a reason why X always makes you feel this way? Have you ever thought about it?
A: Probably because of Y. If I work more on Y, X won’t affect me so much in the future.
This is an example of a conversation where why is used more than once. Obviously, there is no need to ask why five times. Twice or three times is enough.
As Robert Taibbi L.C.S.W. explains, the Five Whys technique can be used to help someone see the real obstacles under a problem and come to a deeper point.
Also, as Jenn Granneman explains in an article published in Psychology Today, going deep in conversations is actually good for us. In her article, Granneman refers to a study conducted by the University of Arizona, according to which happiness can be increased by facilitating substantive conversations.
By repeatedly asking why we encourage the other person to do some introspection and open up — obviously if they are willing to answer — which makes a conversation deeper.
2. What Do You Mean By…?
A question you can use when something is not clear to you is, “What do you mean by X?” It is a follow-up question that has several benefits.
First of all, it shows you are actively listening. Also, it encourages the other person to talk more about themselves and get their point across.
Most importantly, it helps you better understand what the person in front of you is actually saying — so that when it’s your time to answer, you can better contribute to the conversation, and the other person will likely feel understood.
As Leon F Seltzer Ph.D. explains, feeling understood is crucial for our mental well-being, as it makes us feel accepted and empowered. Consequently, asking more questions to better understand someone and making them feel understood is essential to encourage someone to open up with us.
3. Tell Me More
“I was thinking of starting a French course this semester.”
“Interesting! That sounds exciting. Tell me more.”
I had this type of conversation several times, and I’ve noticed that when someone simply says “Tell me more!” I feel comfortable in their company. I feel they are really interested in what I’m sharing with them.
A simple tell me more is always a great way to deepen a conversation and encourage the other person to open up. You don’t have to think about what to ask to keep the conversation going, and for the other person is easy to answer.
Also, a phrase like tell me more is an effective way to put into practice what Dale Carnegie once said:
Talk to someone about themselves and they’ll listen for hours.
4. Can I Do Something to Help?
Most people listen passively, easily get distracted, or fake attention. So, when you actively keep a conversation going and also offer to help someone, you stand out in their mind.
A follow-up question like “Can I do something to help?” will likely have a strong impact. It means you are not only willing to stay there and listen, but also to take action for someone.
Whether you are offering emotional, psychological, or functional support, when you offer to help, you show genuine altruism, which is one of the noblest human qualities.
According to an article published in Psychology Today, individuals who go out of their way to aid others often receive something in return — an intangible reward, such as admiration and respect, or material support at a later time.
A few months ago I had a problem at work and I was talking to a friend about it. I wasn’t expecting her to solve my problems, I just needed to talk. After I explained to her my problem, she asked, “I’m so sorry about this situation; is there something I can do? Can I do something to help?”
Due to the type of situation, there was nothing she could do, but I felt cared for. I felt I was emotionally supported by someone, which made me open up more than usual.
5. And You?
A simple “And you?” is a great way to keep a conversation going and encourage someone to talk more about themselves.
“How is everything going? What about the project you were telling me about?”
“All is great thanks. I’m really excited about this project, I am about to launch the website. And you? How is everything going?”
Most people tend to redirect conversations to themselves. In fact, as Joseph Burgo Ph.D. explains in an article published in Psychology Today, most people are almost exclusively focused upon themselves, their personal interests, and their own emotional needs for attention.
Instead, when we interact with people who don’t feel the need to always talk about themselves and show a genuine interest in what we are saying, it makes us feel good around them. And one of the best ways to show a genuine interest in someone is by redirecting the conversation to them with a simple “And you?”
Few things are better than building healthy relationships and truly connecting with others. And life is too short to limit ourselves to shallow friendships.
Simple follow-up questions such as “Why?” “Can I do something to help?” “What about you?” can help you encourage someone to open up and have more meaningful conversations with them.
You can start with a simple tell me more.