Though Peggy Wolman Matchmaking works with singles looking for love, this topic applies to all relationships. As we all know, communication is at the core of our relationships, whether creating new ones, or maintaining mutually respectful longstanding connections. How then, do we create more meaningful conversations and dialogue when we are getting to know people, and also with the people we care about?
Men and women frequently tell us that on early dates, they feel as if they are in a courtroom on a witness stand, being interrogated by a friendly, but persistent prosecutor. What it is about our culture that has prompted this model of starting conversations? We’re not sure, but at Peggy Wolman Matchmaking, we propose a different model for our clients, a model to be considered for use in all relationships. Stated simply: Whether on a date, or with a mate, don’t interrogate.
Are any of these questions familiar conversation starters for you?
In Europe, for example, no one asks the first three questions. They are considered intrusive because basically they are questions about social class.
Where are you from? [Code for: What is your background?]
What do you do? [Code for: How much money do you make?]
Where did you go to school? [Code for: Does this date meet my standards of a well-educated person from an elite social position?]
Here are some other popular questions asked on early dates, or when we meet people for the first time. Can you think of some possible “code” for each of these questions? That is, how you may interpret possible answers.
Where do you live?
How long have you lived here?
How many siblings do you have?
Knowing someone is divorced:
How long have you been divorced?
How often do you see your children?
Where do they go to school?
Where does your ex live?
When did you start dating again?
If never married:
How is it that you have never married?
When did your spouse die?
How did he or she die?
When did you start dating again?
Another particular “non-favorite” question of ours is, “So, how do you know Joe or Betty?”
This question puts someone on the spot to come up with an “answer” that is supposed to fit with whatever you want to know. Maybe they met through a mutual friend, and you wonder where they were that you weren’t. Maybe they know each other through your boss, and you somehow think that is an odd connection, given their businesses. Maybe they met through your ex, which conjures up a negative association for you, and so on. Though you may not have an agenda with this question (at least consciously), if you consider its implications of social manipulation, perhaps you’ll agree that this is an intrusive question.
The inherent problem with the model of asking questions to get to know people, or with people with whom you already have a relationship, is that it shifts the responsibility of the interpersonal agenda from you to the other person. The conversation is based on your needs, but the other person has to do the work of choosing what to say to meet those needs. It’s not really a dialogue; it’s not a conversation. This way of relating is basically a one-sided interaction. It’s about what you want to talk about, what you want to know, and you don’t have to do the talking. A standard (seemingly harmless) example: “Where do you want to go for dinner?” A frequent response: “Oh, I don’t know. Whatever you want. It doesn’t matter, anything you want is fine.”
In this case, either these two individuals are so loving and accommodating that neither would want to impose his/her will on the other. Or, a more likely explanation that this example expresses is a reluctance to take responsibility for a choice, and risk disapproval from the other. A simple scenario that can be multiplied and magnified countless times, but in each instance the underlying dynamic is the same.
Another example, you might ask your date (knowing he recently moved to Boston,) “How do you like living in Boston?”
The assumption is that this is a topic he would want to talk about. The actual situation may be that he had to move to Boston for his job, or that he felt he needed to be closer to an aging parent, but his relationship to his parent is complicated. The truth is he wishes he didn’t live in Boston, and he is hoping to move back to San Diego as soon as he can!
But since you don’t know each other very well, and he doesn’t want to put a damper on your question by responding negatively, and doesn’t feel ready to talk in depth about the real reasons why he moved here, he simply responds with something like, “Boston is a fun city with lots of interesting people and places to go.” You’re likely to think this response is boring (which it is) and doesn’t offer any interesting momentum for further conversation.
Unfortunately, you laid the groundwork for a conversation you would like to know by asking him to talk about what was on your mind, not on his mind. The result was a hollow conversation, and probably one that lead to more questions. Your question did not give him an opportunity to talk about what was on his mind or permit him to tell his story about how he sees the world, or any part of it.
We propose a different model for creating dialogue. Instead of asking questions, we suggest making declarative statements about how you feel. Tell your own story and let the other person respond freely, instead of starting a conversation by questioning someone you don’t know, or a partner or a child. [Remember when we asked our kids, or our parents asked us, “How was school?” The answer: “Okay.” Or, the classic Where did you go?” – “Out.” “What did you do?” – “Nothing.”]
Last month, we were talking to a newspaper reporter about the topic of asking questions. He explained, “But that’s what I do. I ask questions. That’s my job. I’m not sure I know what you mean. How can I get information if I don’t ask questions?” We asked him to tell us something on his mind that he wanted to share about his day. He looked down at the newspaper on our table and said, “I was surprised to learn from reading Tom Magliozzi’s obituary (of Click and Clack) that he was a graduate of MIT.” And our conversation took off about our mutual enjoyment of listening to Click and Clack on NPR radio and how sorry we were to learn of his death. We made a personal and meaningful connection with each other; about each other’s graduate schools, what we like about NPR, why we like the cars we drive, and the importance of laughter in our lives. This conversation revealed more about who we are, than abut what we do, and as a result, we thoroughly enjoyed meeting each other.
Next time you are on a first or fifteenth date, Try this: “This is one of my favorite restaurants because of its beautiful view of the Charles and the good feeling I get when I come here.”
With this kind of personal statement, you give your dates, or anyone you‘re with, an opportunity to chime in with how they feel about the restaurant, the food, the Charles, the proximity of the restaurant to home, and more. They can then decide on the direction of the conversation based on how they feel about what you said. Statements of elaboration (and questions) will then organically evolve from a mutually uncovered topic, e.g., “Yes, I came here with my children on my son’s 16th birthday.” “Really? I always celebrate important events here, too. A real dialogue is born.
When you start conversations with statements about yourself and about how you feel at that moment, you will engage in meaningful dialogue that you and your partner have created. On your next date, try starting the conversation with a statement about something about which you feel passionate (Yoga, The Red Sox, gardening, jazz, The Daily Show, etc.). Discover the natural dialogue and enjoy the personal stories that follow, and most of all, notice how you find out more about who your date is as a person (not about what he or she does) – which is in our opinion, what matters most of all.