There are two kinds of coaches in sports. There are coaches who create a playbook before a game and follow it – and there are coaches who make their playbook for a game based on watching the game and making adjustments based on what is happening. Guess which kind of coach usually leads more successful teams? Being flexible is never easy – but there is one mistake that most of us make everyday that leads to inflexible thinking, boring panel discussions and limited conversations.

The biggest mistake most of us make is asking everyone the same question.

In a panel discussion on stage, a poor moderator poses an obvious question – and then waits for every panelist to answer it by agreeing with one another. The audience, meanwhile, tunes out and stops paying attention.

At networking events, connectors who think they have crafted the perfect “opening question” rapidly devolve to asking tried and true questions about what you do for a living, where you live or what keeps you up at night.

The cost of all these predictable template-style questions is real human connection. So how can any of us change?

3 Ways To Have Better Conversations

  1. Start with observations. Consider starting questions with this phrase: “I noticed that you …” What happens when you are forced to think about this is that you start to consider what you know about someone before you meet them based on where you are, what they look like or what you know about them already. One of the best conversations I had at an event recently was because I noticed that someone was using two different phones at the same time. Asking why led to an amazing conversation about time optimization and technology.
  2. Interrupt with questions. Many people think good listening means always letting someone finish every thought and nodding along. Instead, active listening requires that you ask questions WHILE you are listening. Sometimes this means interrupting – but this isn’t something to be afraid of. Often the interruptions will lead to tangents that create more intersections for both of the people in a conversation.
  3. Seek stories instead of answers. There are questions that lead to answers, and then there are questions that lead to stories. Here’s one way you might start a story seeking question, “What inspired you to …” When people share stories, they go beyond feeling like they are being interrogated. They open up and they connect. The more stories you can hear, the more connection you’ll feel to everyone you speak to.

Ultimately, the most important skill to develop is learning to ask better questions. If you can do that, you’ll make deeper connections, have better conversations, and perhaps even salvage a pitiful panel discussion.