“So, what do you do?” “Where do you live?” “How do you know [Name of Host]?” are some of my least favorite kind of questions, because they don’t elicit interesting answers. If you want to get to know someone, you’ll have to do a lot better than this.
As a coach, I’m paid to ask provocative, probing, powerful questions and in social situations, I often wish strangers would ask some of me. Sadly, they don’t. Mainly because it’s considered rude. However, what I’ve found is that if you’re prepared to risk seeming rude by being the first to ask a provocative question, strangers are usually only too happy to follow suit.
Helpfully, the Harvard Business Review has now published 8 great questions to ask at any kind of networking event. They’ve also written up their findings on how colleagues get on better, enjoy work more, and stay connected for longer if they share common experiences outside of work. Sociologists refer to these connections where there is an overlap of roles or affiliations from a different social context as multiplex ties.
So, next time you’re at a social function or networking event and you feel bored by small-talk but fearful of asking profound questions, you can dive right in, backed up by the knowledge that, far from being inappropriately nosy, you’re on the quest of making multiplex ties. What’s more, you’re endorsed by Harvard. Who knows, instead of simply adding a connection, you may actually make a new friend. And that, says the Harvard Business Review, is the whole point. “Research findings from the world of network science and psychology suggests that we tend to prefer and seek out relationships where there is more than one context for connecting with the other person.”
What excites you right now? I love this question because the answer can be as intimate as you want to make it. You can share your excitement about your upcoming vacation, your boat, your son’s dance competition or your daughter’s soccer game Or you can talk about a book you’re reading or a profound experience you just had.
What are you looking forward to? Having things to look forward is what brings us joy in life See the article I wrote about the pleasure of planning for Forbes Whether it’s a planned vacation, something in your work-life or a personal milestone you choose to share in itself speaks volumes. Finding out about someone’s anticipated joy is a wonderful way to get to know them better. And if they say they are not looking forward to anything, you may want to take this as a cue to move on.
What’s the best thing that happened to you this year? A wonderful, fresh, open-ended question, similar in some ways to the previous one, but instead of this being about anticipated joy, this question elicits remembered chapters. Sometimes, with the perspective of hindsight, the most difficult events offer the most growth and learning So, losing my job or suffering an illness could end up having been the best thing that happened all year.
Where did you grow up? This question reminds me of the usefulness of the pre-fix “I’m curious…” Essentially, this is asking a stranger to share their life story in as much or little detail as they’re willing. However, you could modify this to “I’m curious, WHEN do you think you grew up?”
What do you do for fun? Unless you’re asking a painter, a poet, a singer a dancer or the odd entrepreneur, most people’s work is not what brings them the most fun. So, this question takes your interlocutor right onto the ski slopes, the golf course, the beaches or oceans where they have the best times.
Who is your favorite superhero? I’m sure that much insight could be gained by understanding the distinctions between a Batman lover and a Wonder Woman aficionado. However, I have a confession: I don’t have a favorite superhero, because I don’t watch superhero movies. To that end, you could, if you wish, modify it to, who is your favorite fictional character Read my piece for Forbes on Crew mates
Is there a charitable cause you support? You could tailor this to If you could pick one charitable cause to support, which one would it be? This is a question that will help you understand immediately what they care most about, what their values are. And you’re sure to have some shared affinities.
What’s the most important thing I should know about you? OK This is a big one, and not everyone will feel up to asking (or answering) it. As with all of the questions, the best place to start is with your own answer. If you feel stuck, don’t ask it. However, many people are longing to tell you that they have a hidden side (or hidden qualities) which their appearance or manner belies.
Since I started playing with these questions, I’ve met a Police Chief who told me her 9-year-old daughter frequently reduces her to tears; a corporate raider who confessed that his favorite fictional character is Mowgli from The Jungle Book and a Catholic priest who does Zumba dancing for fun. I’ve found I have surprising things in common with people who I’ve only just met.