Meeting people at school, work, and at parties, during dates or on vacation and in other situations, is an opportunity to understand someone else’s mind, their thought processes, priorities and personality traits. However, most of us are not comfortable with asking questions that invite detailed responses. We feel like nosy interrogators or like social klutzes as we flail away while trying to seem socially competent. Some people, though, are skilled at pulling out information that reveals the essence of someone’s soul and sense of purpose. Mental health professionals do it daily. So do journalists, police officers, and some gifted people throughout society. All of them use what are called “Clarifying/probing questions.” They get at the who, the what, the how, the when, the why, and the where of a person’s history.
Clarifying Questions are simple questions about factual details, with a purpose: to elicit informative answers. When you want to get to know someone, from the lightest benign issues on their mind to nitty-gritty details about intentions and issues that matter to the person, ask them clarifying questions. They can be questions such as
“What’s the funniest joke you’ve ever heard or told?”
“Who’s important in your life?”
“Why do you work in that profession?”
“When do you take time to enjoy life?”
“How do you relax?”
“Where are you from?” and
“Please tell me a bit about your values.”
You can play around with the sample questions and ask something relevant to you and to the person(s) before you. Experiment with saying “Please tell me more,” when someone shares information with you. You can even ask “What else should I know?”
When you want more details, ask questions such as “Can you remember the colors or logos of that poster, sweatshirt, hat/clothing?” Fill in the blank as you wish. People tend to smile and become friendlier when they reminisce about happiness. If your questions seem to make someone uncomfortable, apologize for your gaffe and speak of something pleasant to heal the situation.
To summarize, here are The Top 10 Questions to Help You to Learn about Someone. The bolded words matter, the sample text following them can change according to conversational needs:
What’s your name/profession/address/favorite author, singer, place, hobby or food?
What are the important issues in your life?
Who are the important people in your life?
Why/why not, as in “Why is that important to you?” or “Why wouldn’t you…?”
How is, how can, how does…
Where does that happen? Where is the important location you’d recommend?
Can you tell me more? Can that situation change? Can anybody do that?
Have you done that a lot? Have you ever done that?
Do you know about, think/wonder that…?
There’s a bonus eleventh question to ask, too: “Which?” as in “Which choice/ scenario do you prefer?” and “Which of those choices are more important than others?” That can lead to some interesting conversation because you’ll learn about the person’s priorities.
You can probe into the person’s responses and the person who made them so that you’ll get to know them even better. Keep your comments and questions polite (the hair on your neck or that flutter in your gut will know if you’re about to be rude. Obey those “Don’t say it” signals).
Once you gain a bit of insight into the person, you can use humor to lighten the situation. It’s an art to ask getting-to-know-you questions pleasantly (practice makes perfect). It can backfire. Nobody comes away from feeling that they’ve been interrogated with a feeling of ease. Seek out light-hearted jokes and use them when that feels comfortable to you. Always thank someone who responded to you, too. Above all, listen to what the person says instead of preparing a response to their comments. Listening is about absorbing information. You want to be able to respond to the person’s ideas, not missing their significance because you interrupted a flow of ideas with superficial comments.