Tanay (my 5-year-old nephew): Why are you eating?
Me: I am hungry
Me: Because I need the energy to move around
Tanay: Why do you want to move to?
Me: To work
Growing up, I was never scared of asking questions. I was an inquisitive kid who couldn’t ask enough ‘Why’s’. When I entered my teen years, I lost that skill and I started shutting down. I stopped asking questions because I wondered, ‘what if these questions are dumb, what if people think I am dumb, what if this is not the right time’. I missed out on a lot of opportunities thinking about ‘what ifs’, where I had a chance to make a connection, I spent my time coming up with the ‘perfect question’.
I think for the longest time I didn’t want to ask questions. I just wanted to answer. Once my friend came and told me about a great day she had and all I could think was, “when will she stop talking? I also want to share the awesome things I did today”. Pretty soon all my conversations were all about me waiting for my turn to speak. And eventually, I had no one to speak to or connect with on an emotional basis, because
Who wants to have a conversation with someone who just wants to talk and not listen?
I had friends but they were like strangers because I just never bothered to know more about them, I didn’t ask them enough questions.
One day, my friend and mentor, Adi, told me about his concept of ‘be interested to be interesting.’ It took me a lot of time to implement it. I just didn’t know what to ask someone, what if I am crossing my boundaries by asking something personal.
Soon after that, I was working on a project, and to make the project successful I had to conduct some user interviews. Initially, it was so tough to get the ball rolling. After every question, there was an awkward silence. I wanted to ask so many questions, but I didn’t want to invade their personal space so I chose silence. All my initial interviews weren’t that valuable. I got frustrated with these dead ends so I decided that I will ask them a few personal questions, if they feel uncomfortable they will not answer – what’s the worst that could happen?
I did ask them very personal questions about their deepest fears to their biggest regrets. To my amazement, no one was offended. They opened up and shared their story with me. I was stunned to see that those conversations were effortless, yet meaningful. That’s when it hit me like a bucket of ice! ‘Unless I ask, the answer is always going to be no.’ And that was a changing point for me.
Recently after these user interviews, I went to visit my nana. Growing up, I had a very formal relationship with him. He and I couldn’t be more opposite. Our conversations went like – “Kaise ho nana?”
“Mein theek hun. Tume kaisi ho?”
“Yeah, mein bhi”
That’s it. That’s how my relationship was with him for the past 20 years. Due to Covid, I hadn’t met him for 10 months, it was very frustrating. One day I decided, I will isolate myself and then go to Mumbai. And, I did.
Now I am in Mumbai, here to spend some time with my grandparents and know about their story, but I didn’t know how to get rid of the awkwardness. I started asking him questions. Initially, he wasn’t opening up. I kept asking him questions, at first he was hesitant, but eventually, he unveiled his story.
As we peeled the layers, I learned more about his childhood, his school life, his engineering degrees, and a lot more. It was the first-ever meaningful conversation I had with him. When he was telling me about his story, my heart swelled with pride. It felt good to know whose granddaughter I am and what I am capable of. It gave me a sense of belonging; through learning about my roots, I learned more about myself. That’s when it dawned on me – if I wander around never asking questions -, I would never be able to understand a person. I had to change myself to get out of this ‘relationship rut’
Amongst all the superficial conversations where I was waiting for my turn to speak, I completely forgot about those real meaningful conversations. Real conversations feed you at a deeper level and energize you instead of exhausting you. To have these meaningful conversations, asking questions plays an important role. Questions are key to better insights about anyone or anything. I have to take an effort to make conversations interesting.
I have to be interested, to be interesting.
(First appeared on Enterprise India Fellowship on 23rd November)