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 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
- "So what are you taking in school?"
- "So what did you think of last night's episode of (TV show you both watch)?"
- "Where do you see yourself moving after you graduate?"
Asking for further information
- "You're studying business? What drew you to that field?"
- "You're designing an indie game in your spare time? What genre is it in?"
- "No way, then what happened?"
- "Sorry, I'm not sure I follow. What do you mean exactly?"
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..."
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
- "Yeah, I love that show. I think this season's the best yet. I like how they've opened up the scope of the series."
- "Oh wow, the band's lead guitar player has a really interesting style."
- "I don't know why Steve doesn't just move in with Brian and Dan if he's having so much trouble with his current roommate."
- (opinion in the form of good-natured teasing) "Ha ha, you always get so worked up when you're talking about that movie."
Sharing something about yourself
- "Yeah, I totally know what you mean. I once traveled with a bunch of friends too. This one time in Guatemala..."
- "Yeah, I remember having a brutal time studying for my LSAT's too. My one friend had it even worse, she..."
- "That reminds me. I was reading an article today and it was talking about that issue. It was saying that the government is planning to..."
- "I heard once that that movie was originally going to star Will Smith. That's crazy to think how it might have turned out if he was the lead, and not who they eventually went with."
- "I heard Amanda also got a new job now that I think about it."
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
- "Did you hear that they're recasting the main character in the movie's sequel?"
- "Devon just found out she doesn't have to retake her Statistics course over the summer. Did you know that?"
Statement as a question
- "I think the first season of that show was the best" (said in a tone that shows they're interested in getting their friend's opinion on what the best season was)
- "So I heard Carmen and Jose are going to spend even more on their wedding than they already are..." (spoken with an inflection that implies they mainly want to hear everyone else's take on the matter)
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:
- "Yep... yep..."
- "Uh huh... uh huh..."
- "Oh yeah?"
- "Ha ha, no way..."
- "Wow... he said that?"
- "Yep, that's so something she'd do."
- (Just laughing/looking sad/looking surprised at the appropriate moment, then letting the person continue what they were saying)
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.