Remember, our goal is conversation flow. Conversations flow when they move from topic to topic and speaker to speaker in a way that feels smooth and natural. One of your primary tools for helping conversations flow is the idea of invitation. An invitation is something you say that:
- communicates very clearly that it is now your partner's turn to talk, and
- gives a strong suggestion for what your partner should talk about.
For instance, "What did you do today?" is an invitation. It's obvious that you are inviting your partner to speak, and you are giving a clear idea for what they should talk about (their day!)
Invitations are a foolproof safety net for rough spots in the conversation. If you're not sure what to say next, just throw out an invitation and the conversation will keep going. It's ideal if your invitations relate to something that's already been discussed, but that's not essential (especially if the conversation has halted.) Just throw out an invitation and get the conversation rolling again!
Most invitations are questions, but not all questions are good invitations. For a question to be a good invitation, it needs to satisfy the first two rules I listed above, and it also needs to be open-ended.
The Power Of Good Questions
By "open-ended question", I mean an invitation that allows your partner to talk at length, instead of being limited to a short answer. When you ask a closed-ended question like "Did you have a good weekend?" your partner will likely answer "Yes" or "No." Since you're looking for smooth, flowing conversation, a one-word response is not ideal.
But if you ask the same question in an open-ended way, you will give your partner a much better invitation. When you ask "What did you do this weekend?", your partner is free to tell you the full story of their weekend. You're still asking about their weekend, but you're asking it in a way that invites them to share.
When you invite your partner to share in this way, something powerful happens. Not only does inviting your partner to share help the conversation to flow, but it also gives you an opportunity to show your partner that you are interested in them.
When you ask your partner insightful questions about themselves, it tells them that you want to get to know them better. After all, if you didn't, why would you be asking the questions? The classic writing rule of "Show, don't tell" applies to conversation, too. When you ask your partner questions about themselves, you're not just telling them you are interested in them---you're showing them that you care.
How To Ask Good Questions
Now, there is an art to asking good, insightful questions. If you ask questions that are very superficial ("Do you think it will rain this week?"), you won't find out much about the other person, and they won't get a clear message that you are interested in them. But if you ask questions that are too intimate ("What is your deepest darkest secret?") you are likely to make people uncomfortable.
The trick is to start superficial, and then slowly go more intimate while keeping an eye on the other person's comfort level. If you find that they start giving signs of discomfort, then you should ask less intimate questions. But if they are giving you consistent signals of comfort, then you can consider that a green light to continue digging deeper.
Two quick words of warning about this principle of digging deeper, though
- First, this progression from superficial to intimate is something that happens over the course of a relationship, not over the course of one conversation. When you first meet someone, it's appropriate to go from talking about the weather (very superficial) to talking about where they work (a bit more intimate.) It's probably not appropriate to go from talking about the weather to talking about (for example) their painful divorce. However, as time goes by and you have more conversations with this person, each conversation is an opportunity to dig a little deeper. Eventually you might get to a place where they are comfortable sharing very intimate things with you, but that will usually happen after you have shared many conversations together.
- Second, if you ask the other person more intimate questions, you should share more intimate things about yourself. If the other person is opening up to you but you are not opening up to them, they will quickly become uncomfortable.
Invitation And Inspiration
Obviously, invitations are really useful. They can protect your conversations from grinding to a halt, and they are a powerful tool for building intimacy and rapport with your conversation partner.
However, as handy as invitations are, you can't build an entire conversation out of them. If the entire conversation consists of explicit invitations, it will feel awkward---like an interview instead of a conversation. Natural-feeling conversation flows from one speaker to the next, sometimes with explicit invitations, but often not. Maintaining conversation flow without relying on invitations is where inspiration comes in.