If you’ve taken even one second of therapy, you already know that the key to any good relationship is communication. And while you’ve always worked hard to make sure you’re listening to your partner, asking lots of questions and being as communicative as you can, sometimes it can still feel like the two of you aren’t on the same page. Ever ask “How was your day?” and get a one-word “fine” before she goes back to her cell phone? Yep, us too.
In her book Ask for More: 10 Questions to Negotiate Anything, mediation expert Andrea Carter says that there’s one more thing we should be doing to improve our relationships with everyone from our spouse to our boss to our best friend: asking open questions.
Open questions are different from the questions you’d typically ask, because they let the answerer steer the conversation instead of the asker. Let’s say your partner just returned from a business trip to India. What can you ask them so you can connect about their visit when they return? Most people don’t ask enough questions, period, Carter tells us. But even if they do, it will likely be some variation of, “Was India hot? Did the training go well?” or “Were you jetlagged?” These questions are closed questions—they all lead to a short, yes or no answer. The key to making sure your questions lead to open communication? “Don’t ask a question that starts with a non-action verb,” Carter says. “Most of the time, when you start a question with a verb, you are asking a closed question.”
Instead, ask an open question, like, “What did you love about India?” Another one of Carter’s favorites (even though it isn’t technically a question—that’s OK, as long as it opens up the dialogue) is “Tell me about India.” Before you know it, you’ll be engaged in a deep, fascinating conversation about the delicious Rogan josh, the unbelievable sunsets, the seven-hour layover in Paris and the time he got lost in New Delhi. (Sure beats “fine,” doesn’t it?)
One more tip from Carter: Once the conversation is flowing, don’t be afraid of pauses. “For the listener, silence can be a gift,” she says. Instead of talking over your partner or jumping in to ask another question as soon as they’ve finished talking, practice allowing at least five or ten seconds to pass, signifying that you are truly listening and taking in everything they’re saying. Instead of feeling rushed or judged, this will help them open up even more.
Now go ask some open questions, you incredible conversationalist, you.