Five years ago, I went away for the weekend with four couples. I was solo that weekend, except for our five-week-old firstborn. Mike was back in Laos. We had four more weeks before he and I would be reunited.
During a lazy dinner on that weekend getaway, one of my friends, Sarah, asked me how Mike and I managed to stay connected when we spend so much time apart.
“We talk,” I said. “A lot. If Skype were a non-profit I would be a regular donor.”
“Don’t you run out of things to talk about?” Sarah wanted to know.
So I told my friends about how when we are apart for weeks at a time, Mike and I keep a running list of conversation topics we can delve into when we have time and energy.
“We call it the rolodex,” I said. “We literally write these things down.”
I also told them about how Mike and I would sometimes randomly draw out questions from a board game I had when we were dating long distance. The questions from that game could be conversation goldmines.
“One time,” I said, “the question I picked out was: What is the most important quality in a marriage?”
“Was that before you were married?” Sarah asked.
“That was before we were engaged,” I said.
Most of my friends looked at their spouses across the dinner table.
“Go on,” I asked them. “What is the most important quality in a marriage?”
There was a lengthy silence.
“Everyone’s trying to think of the right thing to say,” someone said, laughing.
“Everyone is also wondering what their spouse thinks is the right thing to say,” another person observed.
Everyone eventually conquered their shyness, and the seven of us spent at least half an hour discussing that one question. We had known each other fifteen years, but we all learned something new about a good friend that night.
Time and time again, now, I’ve witnessed the power of a thoughtful question to jump-start meaningful conversation. In fact, I’ve come to believe that “asking good questions” and “listening well” are totally under-rated abilities. When it comes to building and strengthening relationships, it’s no exaggeration to call these two skills superpowers.
Why asking good questions is a superpower
A good question can be a potent and unpredictable catalyst.
A question can help us consider something from a different angle, prompt us to search deep within ourselves, or force us to clarify our thoughts, feelings, and opinions.
It can dredge up memories we’ve half forgotten, or keep tucked away.
It can flood us with nostalgia, stir up affection, set our teeth on edge, or make us laugh.
If you practice asking good questions and listening well, you will learn new things—important new things—about someone you love. They will feel valued, heard, and understood. Likewise, if you share your answers to such questions yourself, the other person will get to know you better. In this way—over time—that invisible living bond between you will grow stronger and more resilient.
How to come up with good questions to ask
OK, so you’re convinced that good questions are powerful tools, and asking good question is a great idea. The problem? Good questions are not always that easy to think up, especially on the spur of the moment.
I have an awesome book that can help you with this. Before we talk about the book, however, here is a quick exercise to help you come up with half a dozen questions you could ask your partner over the dinner table tonight.
So, grab a pen and paper. Think of someone in particular you would like to connect with.
Now, write down some possible questions you could ask them in response to the following prompts:
- What is something about which you would like this person’s opinion or advice?
- What are two questions you could ask this person today instead of, “How was your day?”
- What is something this person has been focusing on lately? What are two questions you could ask them about that project or topic?
- What is something you would like to know about this person’s childhood or family?
- What is a story or anecdote from your own life you would like to tell this person? What is a question related to that story that you could ask them?
401 Great Discussion Questions
Even if you are already skilled at coming up with good questions to ask those you love, having a book of questions on hand can really help. I’ve got good news on that front. During the last couple of months, I’ve completely revised and updated my best-selling book. What was 201 Great Discussion Questions For Couples is now 401 Great Discussion Questions For Couples.
- For Fun: Desert Island And What If?: Light-hearted questions that ask you to dream, play, imagine and laugh.
- Today: A dozen alternatives to: “How was your day?”
- Life Right Now: Who Are You? About who you are and where you are at right now in life.
- What Do You Think? What you think about life, love, lying, and everything in between.
- Tell Them… A chance to share your own thoughts and memories… about them.
- Highlights and Lowlights: About the extremes—the highs and lows—of life.
A book like this one can take the pressure off and let you relax and focus on the “talking together” part. It can:
- Spark fresh conversations and make you laugh
- Help you learn new things about each other (yes, no matter how long you’ve been together)
- Make talking together easy and fun
- Help you talk about topics you’ve been nervous to bring up
You can use the questions in this book in just about any context to spark great discussion. They will work equally well whether you’re talking via a long distance phone line or across the dinner table. And many of these questions will lead to other questions you will want to explore. Click here to learn more about how you can pick up a copy of this book.
Listening well: The stealthy superpower
Asking good questions is one half of the superpower skill set (the one I can help you out with.) The other half—listening well—is just as important, maybe more, and it’s totally up to you.
Think about the last time someone gave you his or her full and undivided attention. Perhaps they turned to face you, looked at you, waited patiently for you to answer, and then let you know they understood what you were trying to say. How did it make you feel?
Really listening to others is often not easy. Our minds tend to think three to four times faster than a person can speak. It can be difficult to stay focused on what someone is saying rather than “multi-tasking in your mind.” In addition, what happens the minute we sense conflict or a difference of opinion? Often the first thing we do in these situations is to stop listening and start concentrating advancing or defending our own viewpoint.
Think about it the last time your friend or partner pushed your buttons. Did you focus on listening and understanding them, or was half your mind busy figuring out what you wanted to say?
I love the story wrapped up in the Chinese character for listen. It’s comprised of six different word characters. Separately, each word character has it’s own definition and use. But they are all placed together to become the single Chinese word for listen.
But really listening isn’t just a superpower skill because it’s much harder than it looks. It’s a superpower skill because good listening pays off big time. Here are just a couple of the benefits of listening well:
- It helps you understand (and remember!) what someone else is trying to say. Think about how many hurt feelings and fights stem from lack of information, misinformation, or miscommunication. Good listening can allow you to identify and correct some of these “information gaps” and therefore short-circuit a variety of potential conflicts.
- It will help the other person feel understood, valued, and respected. In day-to-day life, attentive listening in a relationship builds trust and affection. And what about when seas are stormy? Attentive listening is one of the most powerful tools at your disposal to calm and resolve conflict. If someone you are at odds with feels that you have listened well and really understand their position, they will feel more respected and be less defensive and combative.
- It calms and orients you. When you focus whole-heartedly on listening to someone, it often reduces your blood pressure.
In a nutshell: If you practice listening well and paraphrasing what people are saying back to them, you’ll be surprised at how far this skill gets you in life and love.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it
Your mission this week, should you choose to accept it, is to practice these two superpower relationship skills. Every day, stretch a little.
Put some extra thought and energy into what questions you ask. And, while the other person is answering, practice listening with your full attention and with an attitude of curiosity, patience, encouragement, and respect.
— Your turn —
I love writing and talking about questions and listening. I really do believe that they are superpower skills at the very heart of most relationships, and I’d love to hear some of your thoughts.
Leave a comment below with your answer to one or more of these questions, or just take them away and think them over for yourself.
- Are you naturally better at asking good questions, or listening well?
- What is one of your “dinner-party” questions that you pull out to make conversation with others over a meal?
- Who do you know who is excellent at asking questions? What do they do, specifically, that makes them a super, ‘question-asking-ninja’?
- Who do you know who is excellent at listening well? What do they do, specifically, that makes you feel so “listened to”?
- Finally (and feel free to answer this anonymously)… What is a question you’d like to ask your partner, but you feel too scared to voice?