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Asking Questions And Making Statements - The Building Blocks Of Conversation

This basic article will look at what goes into making conversation on a small scale, nitty-gritty, mechanical level. Other articles in this section cover the topic at a more medium or large scale (e.g., general approaches for making conversation, bigger picture considerations).

When it's your turn to speak, and you want to continue the conversation, you have to say something that will cause the other person, or people, to keep talking. You have two core options. You can either ask them a question, which directly calls on them to speak, or you can make a statement of your own, which will hopefully lead them to think of something they want to say in response. I'll cover them both below. Since this article uses lots of little examples, I'll refer you to the quick disclaimer about them.

Questions

Questions could be your asking about a new topic, or following up on something the other person has already said, to get more details.

Asking for new information

Asking for further information

Open-ended vs. closed-ended questions

As you've no doubt heard a million times before, as much as you can you want to ask open-ended questions rather than easy-to-answer closed-ended ones, where the other person can stall the conversation out by only having to respond with a yes or a no, or something like "It's good." A quick example of open vs. closed would be asking someone what they think of their university program, rather than asking if they simply like it or not. Sometimes you will end up asking a more closed-ended question. It's hardly a horrendous mistake. Just be aware that you may not get a good answer back, and have something else to say ready to go (e.g., "Did you have fun on vacation?", "Yep", "... What would you say was the highlight?"

If you can ask stimulating open-ended questions that take the conversation in interesting directions, even better. However, you don't need to go overboard and feel that every last thing you ask has to be ultra-creative and cause the other person to delve deep into their very soul. Questions like that are often a bit much for more casual day-to-day conversation. Also, the other person may not be able to arrive at a good answer. Like if someone tells you they're taking Economics in university, you could ask them, "So what's been your favorite course so far?", and then ask them, "Oh yeah? What do you like about it?" when they answer. It's a little more creative than asking, "So how are you finding the program?", but it's still pretty easy to reply to. On the other hand, if you asked them, "So what would you say is one thing you've learned that's really challenged your preconceptions of how global economics works?", they may give you a great response, or they may go, "Ummm... ...I don't know... I haven't really thought about it... yeah..."

Statements

A statement might be an opinion or comment, or your sharing something relevant that happened to you, or your giving out some information.

Opinion, observation, or comment

Sharing something about yourself

Sharing information

Making good statements

The main guideline when making statements, which I'm guessing you've also heard before, is that you want to provide something with enough substance or jumping off points that it gives your conversation partner plenty of ideas of what they could say next. Something like, "Yeah, Halloween is fun" doesn't give them as much to go on, but, "The other year I was watching one of the Transformers movies, and I got the idea to make a crappy cardboard robot costume. It turned out horribly, and I ended up going to my friend's office party in a last-second doctor costume instead" provides a lot more. The other person might get ideas to talk about: What they were doing on Halloween last year, their opinion on the Transformers movies, costumes they've worn, costume ideas they had that didn't work out, Halloween parties they went to in the past, times they pulled things off at the last second, and so on. That's not to say every statement you make has to be unwieldy and stuffed with colorful details. Just try not to make them too sparse if you can help it.

The blurry line

Sometimes people will ask a question that functions more as a statement, or vice versa. Either way, it's more about what the intent is, rather than if they're technically a true question or statement or not.

Questions as statements

Statement as a question

Mini questions or statements that encourage the other person to keep talking or show your opinion on what they're saying

When it's your turn to talk you don't always have to come up with something lengthy and elaborate. If the person is telling you something they want to talk about, often you just need to make a quick little utterance that tells them, "I'm listening. Keep going", or "Here's my reaction to what you just said, continue." Some examples are:

Mixing up questions and statements

You can often use both a question and statement at once when it's your turn to speak, for example, "This is what I think of X. What do you think of it?" In most conversations you'll want to mix up your use of questions and statements. Too many questions can sometimes create an interview or interrogation dynamic, or cause a lopsided situation where one person feels they're doing all of the sharing about themselves while the other remains a cipher. In some cases using too many statements may make you seem like you're not interested in the other person and their opinions, and simply want someone to talk at.

Some types of discussions will naturally feature more of one than the other. Like if you're talking to someone about a mutual interest, you both may just be making a lot of statements to each other as you share your opinions and information. If you're getting to know someone, or listening and helping them work through a tricky issue, you may mostly be asking questions.