Answering the wrong question
Over the years, I have been present in a lot of situations where people are meeting each other for the first time. These situations often unfold with people introducing each other. Something about it has always made me uncomfortable. While introducing ourselves, we just talk about our current role in our current company and maybe some of the past companies that we have worked in. Or when I was a student, I would simply talk about which class I was in and if my studies are going fine.
Is that really all there is to our existence?
Okay, maybe it is more “efficient” to not ramble about my newfound love for cats in a time-bounded meeting with an agenda. What about an informal gathering where we might be meeting new people? What about a family reunion?
When we meet someone for the first time, how often has the first question that you’ve asked (or been asked) been: “So, what do you do?”
When we meet an old friend or acquaintance or family member after a long time, why is our first question: “So, what are you doing nowadays”?
Do you also feel slightly awkward and limited by that question?
For some reason, I feel completely turned off by that question instantly. For one, it seems to constrict my life’s meaning into what am I working on at a certain point in time. There is so much to each one of us: our feelings, our experiences, what makes us happy, what ticks us off, what are we passionate about, what do we care about, who do we want to become, etc. Our work is definitely an important part of our existence, but it is just that, right? A part?
On top of that, it instantly converts a conversation (not always) into a form of transaction and evaluation. Is talking to this person worth my time? What will I get by “networking” with this new “connection”?
It creates these false boundaries in our minds regarding who we can talk to or even who we should talk to. For example, coming from an engineering background, I know that a lot of engineers struggle with talking to non-technical folks. There is a general confusion about what should they talk about. Are there even any common topics? Isn’t this a form of evaluation and constriction? In the end, all of us are humans first. We ought to share at least a few things with each other - our worldview, passions, emotions, fears, sources of hope, things we are looking forward to and so much more. Even if we don’t necessarily agree on all of those things (or even on none of them), we can at least be curious about what the other person thinks. Of course, that requires you to fundamentally believe that every person can leave you with something new that you didn’t know before - if you’re willing to search for it. Something new could also mean knowing that the kind of music they are listening to dictates how they are feeling about their life at that point.
This automatically leads to another phenomenon. Even if someone actually asks us a question that doesn’t restrict us, we are so habituated with being restricted that we tend to assume that that is what the other person wants to hear, even if they really want to know about us in our entirety. This is where the social influence likely kicks in. Since everyone answers this question by talking about their work, wouldn’t it be weird if I said something personal? Would they judge me if I told them that I feel horrible today?
A few months back, a friend asked me: “Who are you?”. My instinct was to start talking about my work journey. But I stopped before I did to really think about the question again. “Who are you?”. Wow. I’d never been asked that question before. And to be honest, I couldn’t answer it. I didn’t know how to give justice to that question. So, I threw the question right back at her. She elegantly (and powerfully) answered, “I am energy”.
So, how can we break the chain?
It has to begin by asking better questions. The best kind of questions makes us actually reflect on our lives and leaves us feeling that we learned something new about ourselves. And there are many options that we can pick from:
Who are you? - probably one of the toughest ones to answer
Tell me about your life story (or your life journey?) - explicitly asks the other person to think broadly about their life as a whole as opposed to just their work
How have you been? - does not constrict them and leaves it up to them to define their boundaries
How have you been feeling? - for people with whom we might be meeting after a long time and know have been struggling with certain aspects of their life
What has been your biggest learning since we last met? - clear prompt to think more broadly about their life and even do a reflection that they might not have done until you asked them this question
These are just a few questions that I have been using recently to kickstart my conversations and they have helped me have very meaningful conversations with many people. Some of those people have gone on to become very dear friends now - even when I haven’t even met them in person yet.
A big part of all my conversations is vulnerability. I often tend to start being vulnerable quite early in the conversation so that the other person can feel comfortable with being vulnerable about themself with me too. If you put all your flaws right on the table for the person to look at, it turns out, the other person is willing to share some of their baggage too. I find it really hard to connect with anyone if both of us aren’t able to be vulnerable with each other. And vulnerability, which involves sharing a lot of our insecurities, can only manifest through curiosity aided with thoughtful questions.
So, in your next conversation, do try asking (and answering) the right question! And if you do end up actually doing so, tell me how it went and how you felt! :)