What’s the first question you ask in every meeting or social interaction you have right now? It’s probably some form of the question: “How are you going?”
And how do people respond to you? “Good.” ”Okay.” “I’m doing alright.”
Basically: ask a vanilla question, get a vanilla response.
I’m as guilty in this crime of vanilla-question-asking as the next person. I’ve become aware that this is my default method of starting any conversation I have - whether this be with my CEO, a close friend, or even my mum. I talk to my mum almost every day and it’s the first thing I ask her. How boring.
Professor Jane Dutton suggests that to foster high quality connections - which is critical in times like this where many of us are socially isolated (at least physically) - we need to ask better questions. A good question elicits a deeper and more genuine response and reveals something that you previously did not know about the person. For example, you might ask the question, “What has been an unexpected upside during COVID for you?” or “What’s been the best thing about working from home this week?”
By asking better questions, you will feel more connected to the people around you and them to you, through sharing something personal. High quality connections make us feel energised and lit up – an important ingredient for coping during this stressful time.
So in the spirit of forming higher quality connections, here are the instructions for this fortnight’s experiment:
Complete the pre-experiment survey here. We are going to measure two things. First, we are going to measure relationship satisfaction. And second, we are going to measure general well-being. Professor Dutton’s research suggests that this experiment may lead to an increase in both these variables.
For the next two weeks, at the beginning of every interaction you have with co-workers, friends, and family, you are going to start with a “better” question - one that requires a level of depth to answer and gives you true insight into the person on the other end of your Zoom screen or phone. At the bottom of this post, you’ll find some questions for inspiration, but feel free to get creative and generate your own.
Now, this experiment will be hard. The reason it will be hard is because asking “How are you going” is a well-entrenched habit for most of us. So the third thing I’m going to ask you to do is to put some triggers in place to give yourself the best chance of success. First, put a post-it note on your computer with a couple of the questions you want to ask. This will remind you to ask better questions in all of your virtual chats conducted via your computer. Second, change the wallpaper / screensaver on your phone to remind you to ask better questions. Simply write down the words “ask better questions” on a sheet of paper, take a photo of this, and save it as your background.
As an optional extra, I’m going to let you pick a level of commitment for this experiment.
Level 1 = work only. This means you only need to ask better questions at work - in meetings and informal catch-ups with coworkers.
Level 2 = work + friends. This means Level 1 plus asking better opening questions with all catch-ups with friends.
Level 3 = work + friends + family. This means Level 2 plus asking better questions of family members too (which might be several times a day if you live with family).
Okay! I’m excited to see what happens.
And PLEASE complete the pre-experiment survey now - the more data, the better! It will only take you one minute.
Catch you in a fortnight!
A few questions for inspiration to get you started…
What has been an unexpected upside during COVID for you this week?
What’s been the best thing about working from home this week?
Tell me a highlight of your day.
What are you most grateful for today?
What has been the most meaningful part of your work week?
What is something you have learned this week?
What is your favourite room in your home, and why?
What are you most looking forward to doing one lockdown rules are relaxed?
If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?
What has put the biggest smile on your face this week?
What is your favourite object in your home?
What is something that brought you joy at work this week?