Questions for Connection
Updated: May 22, 2021
Growing up in Taiwan, I remember that my dad was always asking people questions and listening to them speak. It’s partly related to his background in counseling psychology and cross-cultural studies, which is rooted in his interest in understanding and connecting with people from various backgrounds. A lot of his work and academic research focused on trying to understand the unique perspectives and experiences of various types of people. It was so natural for him to ask questions, make people feel valued and respected, and connect with them on a deep level. This made him a very likable and respected person, and of course, I also wanted to be like him in many ways.
He would drink tea with elderly neighbors and listen to their stories and opinions about everything under the sun. He would listen to neighbors lament (complain, grieve) about their health problems, vegetable sellers share about their work and farms, and even kids rattle on about god knows what.
But it wasn’t until university in the US when I read Dale Carnegie’s book How to Win Friends and Influence People that I really put the pieces together and began to understand the psychology and methodology that my dad had been using so effortlessly my whole childhood. The book has many ideas and is mostly focused on helping people become influential in business relationships.
For me, the most important takeaway from the book was this: If you ask people questions about themselves and show genuine interest and respect toward them, they will feel valued and you will have a positive connection with them.
It’s really so simple that I feel a bit strange even writing about it. But I’m sometimes surprised by how little people do it.
After reading the book during Christmas holiday my first year of university, I remember returning to campus with a renewed perspective. It was as if something that I had naturally sensed my whole life and even practiced a little bit had now become clear.
So I started paying more attention to the way I, along with other people, communicated. I started initiating more questions with my friends, as well as with people at my cafeteria table who I didn’t even know. Friends and strangers alike began answering, talking, and telling me stories. It was like my questions opened up their mouths and then their hearts. There was a deep sense of connection that was established.
Sarah, a confident girl who actually seemed a bit intimidating, standoffish (distant, unsocial), and mean, was one person who I initiated a conversation with. I asked her where she was from, what she was studying, and how she was enjoying college so far. To my surprise, just seconds into our conversation, I could see her guarded shell melt away into a gentle soul. The person who seemed unfriendly was actually extremely kind, and she became one of my close friends that year.
So here’s my observation: We all need to receive questions so that we can express who we are and be known. But it starts with one person asking a question.
Even though many people understand the concept, it can be really easy to neglect its importance and power. Particularly if you want to connect with English-speakers from Western cultures, intentional questions are an important way to create connection.
In general, I think most people want to show others that they value them, and want to make a deep connection. But there are sometimes obstacles that prevent us from asking good connecting questions.
One thing that gets in the way – particularly for talkative extroverts and people from Western cultures – is when we have strong opinions or want to talk about ourselves. If this is the case, we might spend the time that other people are talking to prepare our next story, response, or counterargument. So instead of really listening, we actually just focus on what we want to say next.
*** Listen to audio version here ***
Other times we just forget to ask other people questions because we’re thinking hard, either about our complex ideas, answers, or how to articulate (communicate clearly) things well in a different language. That’s understandable! But it’s something to notice.
Passiveness (being inactive) can also be an influential factor. This might be more of a tendency for less talkative introverts or in Japanese culture, where too many opinions or direct questions can be considered rude or aggressive. Of course, we always need to pay attention to the social and cultural context and adjust accordingly, but sometimes it might be necessary to take a risk and courageously ask a question if you hope for deeper connection.
In many cases, the obstacle is simply that you don’t have much in common with the other person, or you just cannot think of any questions to ask. This might be because of their culture, age, or professional background. But just imagine how much you could both benefit from each other’s otherness (differences)!
As you can see, asking questions can become more complex when there’s more diversity and when there are more people. But these are also the situations where you can practice questions that involve everyone and help show appreciation for diverse backgrounds.
When I lived in India, I became friends with an elderly grandma who was my neighbor. One day, I asked her if she could teach me how to cook Indian food, and she was so excited to teach me! Each question I asked allowed me to gain her valuable wisdom, while she also most likely could sense her worth and connection in a society where she was devalued as a poor widow (person whose husband died ). She would often pop into my doorway as I cooked to make sure I was following her recipe correctly. I usually wasn’t!
Another time in India, I was facilitating a public health seminar in a village. Instead of just lecturing, I started with questions.
“Why don’t people always use soap to wash their hands?” I asked.
As I focused my attention on a teenage girl in the group, she answered, “It’s too expensive, so we try to save it.”
In a society where young girls faced gender inequality, I was able to affirm her answer as very accurate and show her value by learning from her. Then, as we discussed how to improve hygiene, and as she shared good ideas, I was able to publicly affirm her. I told her that she was smart and that I hoped she could be a leader in her community to help others improve their health. All of this started with just a simple question.
There’s no perfect formula for asking connection questions. It takes practice, experimentation, vulnerability, and imagination.
For some personalities or cultures (like in Japan) where safety, privacy, and maintaining harmony are major cultural values, it might not always come naturally or fit the situation. Of course, everyone is different and we need to respect all cultures. But we also have a wonderful opportunity to experiment with questions that can also build respect, trust, and empathy, which are also huge Japanese cultural values that most people desire.
If you want to grow in your ability to connect through questions, there will always be a risk. I felt that risk many times when I talked with various types of people like Sarah who I met in college, my Indian neighbor, and the young seminar participant in the village. But in the end it was worth it. Through those deepened connections, my life and other people’s lives were enriched.
So, who do you want to connect more deeply with and what questions will you ask them?
Tips about extrovert and introvert – An extrovert is a person who receives energy from being with people. An introvert is a person who receives energy from being alone. A common mistake with these terms is that introverts are shy and quiet while extroverts are outgoing and talkative. While this can often be the case, it’s not always true. The main difference between the two types of people is where they receive their energy (from people or from being alone). If someone is in between and balanced between being an introvert and extrovert, they are called an ambivert.
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