Learn the Fundamental Social Skill
- 2004 17 Aug
Man was formed for society. – Sir William Blackstone
If you have avoided the common pitfalls of social insecurity and are becoming more tuned in to reading your social barometer, you are primed to focus on a single skill that the socially competent continually master. This single skill may be the most important thing you can do for making meaningful connections and for understanding and carrying out the principles of self-giving love.
Its simplicity, if not studied, causes it to go unnoticed. But once you recognize its power, you will never approach a relationship without it. The skill? Asking a string of quality questions.
In 1937 the grandfather of all people-skills books was published. It was an overnight hit, eventually selling 15 million copies. And today that book, How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, is just as useful as it was when it was first published. Why? Because Dale Carnegie had an understanding of human nature that will never be outdated and he knew how to ask quality questions. The skills he teaches in this classic book are undergirded by a pervasive principle: People crave to be known and appreciated.
Quality questions are intentionally designed to open up a person’s spirit. They aren’t throwaway questions, like, “How about those Red Sox?” or “Can you believe this weather?” though those types of questions certainly have their place.
Quality questions invite vulnerability, but are not invasive. They are personal, but respect privacy. They are asked out of genuine interest, but are never blunt. A quality question conveys kindness, warmth, concern, and interest. It is couched in affirmation and appreciation.
Here’s an example. Not long ago, the two of us were in Dallas together to speak at a conference. The host assigned to pick us up at the airport was waiting outside security with our names on a placard. “Howdy, my name is J.T.,” he said as he reached to carry a suitcase or two. We hopped into his vehicle and were on our way – until we hit rush-hour traffic. We were at a near standstill for nearly two hours, and that gave us plenty of time to talk.
“Tell us about your hobbies, J.T. What do you do for fun?” we asked.
He became animated as he told us about playing racquetball.
“Sounds like you really enjoy it,” one of us followed up, “and I bet you get plenty of exercise.”
“Oh yes,” he replied, and then he went into describing the competition he entered last year and how he fared.
“You really love it, don’t you?” we said.
“It’s not only fun; you’re exactly right about it keeping me in shape.” J.T. then told us about his father’s triple-bypass surgery two years ago.
As the traffic crawled, we asked J.T. about his work.
“I love computer programming,” he told us.
“I bet there’s a story behind you getting into that field,” we said.
J.T. told us about a high-school teacher who mentored him and how his father loved to tinker with electronics. J.T. then described several of his projects.
With plenty of time on our hands, we were able to ask J.T. questions about his family. Questions about his church. Questions about his upbringing. We asked literally dozens of questions.
And you know what? When we finally pulled up to our hotel and began unloading our bags, J.T. asked each of us for our business cards and said, “You boys sure are interesting. It was great getting to know you.” And with that he climbed into his SUV and sped away.
We looked at each other and smiled.
Truth be told, J.T. didn’t get to know us at all. In two hours of conversation, he did not ask a single question with the exception of the obligatory “How was your flight?” It’s not an uncommon experience. Many people who have never found their social barometer don’t know how to put the spotlight on the person they are with. They’ve never consciously considered how to pull a person out and make them feel known.
The only reason J.T. thought we were interesting is because we showed genuine interest in him. And we affirmed him on top of it. For nearly two hours, he was on center stage with two strangers who supplied him with a string of quality questions about himself. That kind of genuine interest had succeeded in making him feel good about himself as he sped off.
Perhaps you are already well aware of the power of this simple strategy. Maybe you have been doing it for years. Then congratulations! We are sure you don’t lack for friends.
But if you are unsure about your social barometer, it’s time to take action if you want to become the kind of person who radiates self-giving love. If you sometimes endure too many conversational lulls or feel socially awkward too frequently, or if you suffer from shyness, why not give this a try?
Take a colleague to lunch and begin a line of quality questions. We’re convinced you will sense a new level of social confidence almost immediately. As you think in terms of How are they doing? And choose to be genuinely interested, you will witness how quickly this person feels understood and appreciated.
But be prepared. If the person is socially unskilled, like J.T., the questions will be one-sided. You will be doing most (or all) of the question asking; the other person will be doing most of the talking.
If, on the other hand, they are reading their own social barometer, they will eventually turn the tables. And you will witness the social law of reciprocity that states, “Vulnerability begets vulnerability.” Once they reveal information about their career aspirations, for example, they will be genuinely interested in yours.
And when this kind of give-and-take occurs on nearly any subject, you will find yourself in the midst of a terrific conversation. You are enjoying emotional rapport and social synchrony.
Used by permission from "Love the Life You Live" by Les Parrott, Ph.D. & Neil Clark Warren, Ph.D., published by Tyndale, 2003. Visit eHarmony.com to find the love of your life.