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Conversation Tips for Seniors in Social Settings

Einstein, it is rumored, was once seated beside Marilyn Monroe at a dinner party. “Oh, Mr. Einstein,” she cooed, “with your brains and my looks, we could have perfect children.” The physicist paused for a moment and then asked, “But what if they had your brains and my looks?” Party and playful questions aside, there is no doubt that social settings sometimes require us to have good answers. And sometimes, they require us to ask good questions.

Albert Einstein had more to say about questions. He encouraged us to “learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing,” he reminded us, “is not to stop questioning.” And he’s not the only one to share thoughts about questions. We find two brilliant men—one a theoretical physicist; the other, “The Father of Modern Management Science”—echoing one another’s thoughts. Einstein exhorted us, “The important thing is not to stop questioning.” And Peter Drucker, the genius born 30 years later, reminded us that exceptional people “know how to ask questions—the right questions.”

THE RIGHT QUESTIONS

Which questions are the right ones? Those that probe beneath the surface—either initially or subsequently. These questions expand upon an answer that’s been given. They create “spiralized” thinking—viz., the kind of thinking that refuses to accept a monosyllabic answer. Instead, these questions don’t create verbal dead-ends. (As Voltaire observed so many years ago, we should “judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.”)

Here are examples of questions that elicit further thought by probing beneath the surface.

In conversation with your grandson:

Question: “Are you enjoying college?”

Answer: “It’s fine, I guess.”

The right follow-up question: “What constitutes the ‘guess’ part of your reply?”

When meeting a new person in a social setting:

“How are you today?”

Answer: “Fine, thank you.”

The right follow-up question: “What would make you finer?”

At a homeowners association meeting:

“We’re in agreement, then, that our next step is to notify residents of the increase in the monthly homeowner’s fee?”

Answers: “Yes,” (Silence and nonverbal nods are all interpreted as affirmative answers to the question.)

The right follow-up question: “How can we make news of the increase as painless as possible?”

At a holiday gathering with your family:

“So, what’s new since the last time I saw you?”

Answer: “Not much.”

The right follow-up question: “Well, tell me how the children are doing in school. Who is their favorite teacher?”

LET LOU COACH YOU

Without a doubt, there are gaps between the generations. But, even with people the same age, there can be conversational gaps, too. One way to close the gaps is to practice using the right questions. Once you’ve mastered the technique, you’ll find yourself enjoying interpersonal exchanges more as you learn about others and they, about you. To quote a legendary football player and coach, Lou Holtz, “I never learn anything talking. I only learn things when I ask questions.” Here’s to the learner in you.

By Marlene Caroselli

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