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How To Be Curious in Conversation (and Why You Should)

 Tom Merton/Getty Images
Tom Merton/Getty Images,

by Kara Baskin

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As a reporter, I often talk to journalism classes about how to draw people out and set them at ease. The communication skills that are crucial for snagging juicy interviews are important for nearly any job. How to start a conversation, help people feel comfortable, and make them open up are key for negotiating, deal-making and problem-solving. So consider thinking like a reporter: Treat your conversation partners as stars of the show. Draw them out. Ask them questions. Be curious. Here’s how.

1. Humanize yourself. Instead of digging right into the topic at hand, look for a commonality to break the ice. Maybe you have kids the same age, or come from the same area, or enjoy the same hobby. Do some research about the other person in advance, then put yourself on the same team when you begin talking. Your conversation will flow much more smoothly when you switch over to business.


Treat your conversation partners as stars of the show. Draw them out. Ask them questions. Be curious.

2. Disarm. Don’t pepper someone with phony compliments, but if the other person recently won an award 
or received an honor, acknowledge it. This shows that you’re familiar with his work and that you’re interested in more than just whatever he might offer in this conversation. Even if you’re on opposite sides 
of the table, you’re confident and generous enough to give praise.

3. Say, “Why do you say that?” Don’t take statements at face value and then draw your own conclusions. 
Press the other person to define what they mean. We so often approach conversations rooted in our own prejudices and perspectives, which colors outcomes. Force yourself out of this rut. Say your boss tells you, 
“I can’t offer you a $5,000 raise.” You might think she’s stingy or stubborn. Ask why, though, and she might reveal, “Well, we had a difficult year,” or “Well, we’ve never paid someone that much before.” With 
information, you can make a more informed counterpoint.
4. Say, “Could you give me an example?” If someone makes a blanket statement like “The marketing team isn’t functioning properly!” or “Morale is low!” it’s easy to jump right in with a solution. Again, you’re bringing your prejudices into the mix instead of letting the other person steer the ship. You can’t chart the course unless you see someone else’s map. Take a step back and ask for a concrete example. This 
gives you more information and validates your partner. By asking for an example, you’re agreeing that an issue exists and affirming the other person’s opinions by giving her a chance to elaborate.
5. Empathize. So often, we have a “goal” in mind for a conversation: a deal, a solution, a job offer, an answer to a question. But pause a moment to treat your conversation partner like a person. If he says, “This
is really hard for me; I’m not sure what to say,” or “I can’t make a decision right now—I’m too busy,” don’t plow right ahead with your own agenda. Instead, take a step back. Validating statements like “I totally get it—it can be hard to pull your thoughts together,” or “Wow, I sympathize with how busy you are,” soften the edges of tough conversations. Then you can make a suggestion: “Let’s circle back on this tomorrow when you have more time to think,” or “Why don’t you name a better time?” You’ve positioned yourself as someone who’s been there and empathizes, as opposed to someone who only wants a resolution.
6. Lob the ball back. I always wind down interviews with this question: “Is there anything else you want to talk about?” It’s a handy strategy in any conversation. On a practical level, the other person might bring
up something that wouldn’t have come to light otherwise. And on an emotional level, asking this question shows that you truly care about her point of view and that you’re not in a hurry. The other person will feel 
some control, because she ended the conversation on her own terms, with her own thoughts.