What makes for a good business conversation…one that matters, conveys ideas/information, and gets action? That was the question posed at a gathering of professional speakers I attended yesterday. Sure, good listening skills are helpful, as are having an open mind, being totally focused, and having the conversation in an appropriate location. However, I think the best answer came to me after the meeting on the drive home. Great conversations seem to be in response to great questions. Think about it. We often start informal conversations with “What do you do?”, “Where do you live?”, “Where do you work?” and so on. Simple questions get us chatting. Once we “break the ice” and connect with another person, a bigger, deeper, more profound conversation can begin.

At business meetings, questions drive the conversations, process, content and outcome of the meeting. I work with scientists who hold meetings to discuss their findings and learn about the advances in their area of expertise. The best meeting I ever attended was prefaced by a single question: “What is the role of the bacteria that normally live on or in our bodies?” Everyone considered the question long before the meeting and brought their answers to the table based on their understanding of human microbiology and immunology. The overall conversation was full of spirited discussions and interesting ideas. We were amused by some of the replies, mesmerized by stories of bacteria talking to our human cells, and shocked by how little we truly understood these interlopers. Quite simply, our emotions were touched by the conversation! The meeting was memorable, stimulated a new area of research, and resulted in important findings.

Not all questions are good. Some are trite, dull and only elicit a yes or no answer (Do you like carrots?). Others are just too nebulous, confusing or ambiguous to really answer in a reasonable time (What is love?). Because of this, if we wish to stimulate a good conversation at a business meeting that won’t take a lifetime, we’ve got to pose good questions. Depending on the people at the meeting, the question might be very technical (What would be the best way to image the brain?) At a public meeting, the question might be broader and focused on, for example, a community concern (How can we prevent car crashes at this intersection?) Thus, we’ve got to know our audience (culture, age, gender, education level, and so on) to ask the right question.

The ultimate goal of the conversation is to inform and get input from everyone attending the meeting. So, next time you want to maximize productivity from your students, colleagues and co-workers, think long and hard about the questions that will open their minds and mouths.