3 Common Questions That Stress People Out — and What to Ask Instead

Your intentions are likely in the right place, but you might want to rethink and reframe.

Shutterstock | One Line Man
Shutterstock | One Line Man

There are a handful of questions we store in our back pocket for the purposes of making small talk — like when you’re left alone with someone you just met. We use these to fill an awkward pause, or to prevent one from happening in the first place. And while many of these questions are meant to bridge connection, they may land with the person you’re speaking to differently than you intended, and in some cases, create the very awkwardness you were trying to avoid.

To better communicate with others, try reframing these three common questions:

Stop asking: “What do you do for work?”

This classic ice-breaker may not seem particularly problematic, but it can be. If you ask someone this question within moments of meeting them, you may give them the impression that you think their job is the most important part of their identity — rather than acknowledging their whole self, Jay Sullivan, a communications expert and author of Simply Said: Communicating Better at Work and Beyond, explains to Thrive.

Ask this instead: “Tell me about yourself.”

Terry Gross, the legendary host and co-executive producer of NPR’s Fresh Air, swears by this conversation opener, according to a recent interview with the New York Times. A broad question like this one allows the person you’re speaking with to lead the discussion about themselves with whatever they want to share.

Stop asking: “Any fun plans this weekend?”

Perhaps, like me, your idea of a “fun” weekend is one where you eat bowls of pasta with people you like talking to, and take uninterrupted time to loaf on the couch with a coffee and newspaper. Or maybe it’s when your kids have a playdate at their friend’s house, and you’re able to enjoy your home in silence for a few hours (sweet, sweet silence). Point is: We all have different definitions of what makes a weekend exciting, and by asking if they’re doing something “fun,” you may make someone feel self-conscious of their weekend plans because they’re unsure of how they compare to your own. Plus, if they did have zero plans and wish they did, you don’t want to risk instilling a case of FOMO.

Ask this instead: “How are you planning on spending your weekend?”

If you keep the question open, you’ll learn more about the person you’re talking to, and give the conversation more of a chance of deepening. “If they get excited when they respond, ‘Absolutely nothing! It’s my first quiet weekend in a while,’ you’ll know to ask about how busy they’ve been, or be able to comment on how you enjoy those downtime weekends as well,” Sullivan says. If you know your co-workers well enough, try asking them more targeted questions, like “Isn’t this the weekend of Jamie’s school play?” or “How are you feeling about your courses this semester?” — and then offer them praise and support for getting it all done.

Stop asking: “Don’t you think?”

When you ask someone a question, your intention should be to learn from them, Sullivan says. But if you end your question with “don’t you think?”, you’re not learning — you’re simply encouraging the other person to confirm your perspective.

Ask this instead: “What do you think?”

With this simple reframing, the question is now designed to inquire, rather than to push any one agenda.

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