Converse like a Boss: Ask Fewer Questions

Uncle Drew schooling a young blood
I am the Lebron James of nursing home conversation. Elderly people don't intimidate me, I intimidate them. When I swagger into the foyer of a skilled nursing facility, 90-year old women with walkers quake from paralyzing fear (or arthritis). They know what is coming next: talk smack-down. The grizzled love to sharing their lives with me. They tell stories non-stop and we laugh and cry together. I am the magician of geriatric confabulation, the Gandalf of gabbing with the gray, and the vicar of venerable vulnerability.  

Two weeks ago in Missouri, I went to two nursing homes with Asian Christian kids. Those young bloods did great. This post is not for them. It's for the adults who are still making young blood mistakes. We're taught to ask questions. Questions are good. They are the dribbling and passing of conversational skills. They are foundational. If you don't know how to talk to someone, asking questions is essential. And asking good, non-generic questions is even better.

Get buckets: But as NBA legend Bill Russell advises Uncle Drew, the game will always be about one thing: buckets. If you want to elevate your conversation game, you need to score the rock. 

Buckets in interpersonal communication translates into empathy, personal disclosure, and observational insight. This is the fuel of human connection. If you simply fire questions at another person, it feels like an interrogation. These conversations tend to be one-sided, awkward, and brief. It's not so much a dance but a forced march. 

Say something interesting: In the nursing home and on the court, you read the defense and take what they give you. As my friend Walt, a seasoned nursing home conversationalist, advises, speak LOUD and slow to seniors. Tread carefully around family questions because relatives might be estranged, dying, or dead. Rather, ask about a person's past as an older person has a treasure trove of memories. Move from general to specific. 

After you ask question, listen to the answer and formulate a response that, at minimum, demonstrates you were listening. Aim to say something thought-provoking: an observation about context, a brief personal experience that connects with what the person has been through, or offer a suggestion of what it must have felt like to be in their shoes. Volunteer something about yourself. After all, a relationship is reciprocal - if you ask someone a personal question, you can, in turn, offer something about yourself.

I posted up Howard Rizor, an 85-year old man who's been married for six years (married at 79!). He was reluctant to talk to me at first. I asked him about his work history. I could barely understand the guy so I moved closer. Physical proximity is important as conversation, like basketball, is a contact sport. He mumbled something about driving a truck for ten years. I have never driven a truck but I know about sharing the road with trucks so I said:
Something that bothers me which I'm sure you've experienced is when I see a truck is on the highway and there's a big gap between it and the next car ahead of it because a truck is so much heavier and you need way more stopping distance. And cars will see the big gap and cut in front of the truck so they have no room to stop. I've seen this happen to trucks and they have to slam on the brakes and burn rubber because they need more room. It must drive you crazy when cars do this. (I neglected to mention I sometimes do this myself - the gap is so tantalizing.
As I spoke, Howard's body language shifted visibly, he began nodding, started leaning towards me, and increased his eye contact. He had been giving brief responses up to this point but after I said this, he replied "Oh man, tell me about it" and then gushed forth a decades-ago story of how he survived his truck losing braking power over nine miles of downhill coasting. After that, I couldn't get him to stop talking about his collection of cars, how Ford pick-ups are unreliable, and the 1927 vehicle he owns sitting in his front yard. Now the toughest part was how to exit the conversation (also a very important skill like clutch free throws - if you make them, you can keep the game from dragging on forever).

Practice and feedback: As with acquiring any basketball skill, the best way to improve your conversation game is practice and feedback. Practice alone is insufficient because you may repeat the same mistakes. You need feedback from other people to refine what you say and it also helps to observe and evaluate how people respond to your statements.

Watch and learn from people who are good at making conversation and learn from their game. Watch what they say and how they say it. Most importantly, try saying different things during the conversation and watch how people respond.

Airplanes and nursing homes are great places to work on your communication skills. You have a captive (and attention-starved in the case of the nursing home) audience that you will never see anywhere else. You can make all kinds of mistakes with little at risk. It's like playing ball without keeping score. But you have to put yourself out there and go and meet new people.

Courage to take the shot: Here's another response upon finding out someone was a truck driver -
It must have been tough to stay awake after driving for a long time. If it were me, I would put the radio on blast and slip ice down my back. I'm sure every truck driver has a bag of tricks to keep himself from falling asleep.
Note the empathy, personal sharing/opinion, and implicit question. But don't worry about coming up with the perfect statement because there isn't one. My first thought when a guy tells me he is/was a truck driver is:
Wow, driving a truck sounds hella boring and you must have gotten obese from all that sitting.
That's probably not a response most people would want to verbalize but it's honest and provocative. Most of all, it takes courage to pull off that response. I've said stuff like that. Sometimes the person laughs and sometimes the person glares and clams up. After all, if a statement requires courage to voice, it's probably interesting and will generate discussion. My most memorable conversations were birthed out of someone (including yours truly) making controversial and/or offensive statements. The only way to find out is to try. In talking with people, I've thrown up a lot of air balls and I've shot enough bricks to build a mansion. But my percentages have improved and I'm no longer afraid to shoot. As in basketball, there are no guarantees in conversation but one thing is certain - you miss 100% of the shots you don't take.


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