When faced with new social situations many people feel anxious and uncomfortable believing that they do not know what to say and will come across as boring. People fear what is usually called “small talk”. Many practised conversationalists know that it is possible to have an excellent conversation by getting the other person to do most of the talking. Part of the coach’s task is to help people realise that if you ask the right type of questions you can get people to open up.
Closed and open questions
There are different types of questions. Closed questions are the ones where it is possible to give only a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. For example: Do you like your job? Would you like a coffee? Closed questions are useful for fact-finding but do not encourage the other person to open up the conversation and usually have to be followed quite quickly with a further question. Another type of question is called an open question. Open questions are questions that encourage the other person to talk more freely about him or herself.
Open questions start with words such as What, Where, How, When and Why. For example: What kind of films do you like? How do you come to know Mike? What interests you about psychology? Why would you like travel to the Amazon? Where could you find out about careers in catering?
In addition to using open questions, many people have found it useful to remember the acronym OPEN as a way of providing a framework to hang their open questions on. OPEN stands for:
O ccupation (e.g. job)
P ersonal relationships (e.g. family, friends, partner)
E nvironment (e.g. home, work, general environmental issues)
N on-work time (e.g. leisure activities, hobbies, outside interests)
Work can begin in the coaching sessions to both educate the person about the structure of making conversation as well as in the techniques that can be used such as open questions. It is also helpful to role-play situations with clients s they can practise the skills required in a safe environment with the added bonus of receiving feedback on their performance.
It can also be very helpful, if you have access to other coaches in an organisational setting, to arrange for your client to meet with a colleague. This has the advantage of the client meeting someone they don’t know for the first time still within a safe setting. The person is then free to practise their newly acquired skills in the real world.