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The Interpersonal Stage

The Interpersonal Stage of Elevated Conversation is what defines Elevated Conversation itself. It is interpersonal Doing enabled by Better Listening. It involves how we respond to our conversation partner(s) and is powered by our loving agenda of building deeper understanding.

The Interpersonal Stage in Action

You meet a friend you see fairly regularly for coffee. You notice their energy is low and they don’t seem to be speaking as much or as enthusiastically as they usually do. When you asked about their life, they were short and undescriptive in their response. They aren’t volunteering much information for you to understand what is going on or feel connected to them. You decide to respond to what you’re noticing in order to connect more deeply.

You: “You seem quieter than usual. What’s up?” (Open Ended Question)
Them: “Ah, do I? Mm. I don’t know. I don’t think anything really.”
You: “You’re not sure why you’re more quiet than usual and nothing is really going on?” (Reflect back)
Them: “I mean, yeah. I guess I’m not feeling amazing.”
You: “Ok. Not amazing. How are you feeling?” (Reflect back and open-ended question)
Them: “Ah… I’m bored I think. Just in general. With everything.”
You: “Dang, bored with everything? That’s a lot of disinterest- that sounds rough.” (Validation)
Them: “I guess.”
You: “What things specifically are boring right now?” (Insightful question)
Them: “Eh, I don’t really want to do my normal hobbies. And work is really tedious right now.”
You: “Hm. I feel sad for you. I want you to feel inspired by things you’re doing.” (Small reveal)
Them: “Yeah, me too.”


Responding is how we engage our Better Listening. When we reflect back what we hear, ask quality questions, or reveal ourselves, the conversation becomes a cooperative, co-creative work.

Listening is not solely about the internal, intrapersonal stage in which we quietly absorb and process content. Half of the equation is the dynamic interaction between conversation partners that enables them to discover more clarity in their narratives and develop deeper connections!

How To Be A Good Listener
This video from The School of Life explains that conversation is normally boring because we don’t know how to narrate our experiences in a way that focuses on human universals. One of the roles of a listener is to act like an editor for the speaker, and help people hone in on the most important information. Not only does this make the conversation more interesting, it helps the speaker gain clarity regarding their experience.

Better Listeners encourage others to elaborate, ask insightful questions that show interest and concern, and support the speaker by creating a safe place to express with as little judgment, criticism, or invalidation as they can possibly muster!

While there are dozens of tools and guides you could possibly use to help you in the Interpersonal Stage, we’ve selected a few that illustrate the most vital points in keeping a conversation full of discovery, love, and curiosity. In the “Interpersonal Stage Summary” you’ll find a list of additional tools.

To be clear: Interpersonal Stage = Responding. This includes “RRV,” “Quality Questions,” and “Revealing.”

There are also a few extra tools that can be helpful:

Two tools for general Responding: “Active Constructive Responding,” and, yep, Silence!

  • Active Constructive Responding is a useful tool for conceptualizing how Better Listeners can engage with those they’re listening to.  The work of professor Shelly Gable, Active Constructive Responding is based on how people can respond to positive news from another person.  She divided options into passive, active, constructive and destructive.

Active Constructive Responding keeps the focus on the speaker, encourages elaboration, and shows genuine interest. This is an excellent (albeit simple) formula for engaging with others in a loving manner! We want to avoid dismissing people, not demonstrating concern or interest, and redirecting attention onto ourselves or other negativity.

  • Silence CAN BE a powerful response when used appropriately.
    Remember that sometimes responding can look like Silence. We are silent when something needs space for reverence, processing, or feeling. This silence can also create space for people to think through what they want to say more thoroughly and allow them to continue if they choose. If we respond instantly everytime there is a break in the conversation we run the risk of cutting off opportunities for continued sharing. Instead of saying something, respond to the person with your undivided attention, genuine interest, and full presence.

“People may forget what you said — but they will never forget how you made them feel.” — Carl W. Buehner

Reflect Reframe Validate

Interested in helping someone calm down, understand themselves better, and feel seen? Well, we’ve got the perfect tool for you!

Reflect Reframe Validate (aka RRV) is a combination of paraphrasing what you heard and empathizing with the person sharing. It is a series of steps to Reflect back what that person is feeling, Reframe their statement in terms of what they want, and Validate their experience. It’s useful not only in emotionally tense situations, but in any scenario in which the conversation partners desire more understanding. RRV requires empathy to use. That empathy then calms the amygdala and can bring someone back from an amygdala hijack to plant their feet on the ground and continue their conversation with you from a regulated place.

What you may hear What you may offer
I can’t stand this. I hate it. Reflect: It sounds like you’re feeling frustrated and upset.
She is such a dishonest BITCH!! Reframe: You value honesty and are worried she isn’t acting with integrity.
Can you believe this is happening? This is the worst… Validate: Yeah, you’re dealing with a lot. I can understand your discomfort.
I didn’t do it because I’m lazy, ok?! Reframe: You want to do everything you can. Reflect: And you’re a bit bewildered.
Don’t you even care?! Validate: I hear you. Reframe: You want me to be invested. Reflect: And you’re feeling lonely.

Here is a brief overview of RRV.

You can find a more in-depth guide and examples on our RRV page.

Reflect (the emotion)
Reflect back the emotion. Allows for venting.  Person says, “I hate Jimmy! He ruins everything!”  You say, “Sounds like you’re feeling angry and annoyed.”  When the emotion is labeled and acknowledged, people feel understood and reason can sometimes reign again. Sometimes the emotional level/intensity needs to be matched to a degree so they feel felt. Our page Reading Minds goes in-depth on how to guess and name emotions in a conversation.

Reframe (the content)
Reflect the message back so that the content is the same, but you take the sting out. Receive the daggers and hand them back a bouquet of flowers. Doing so can help the emotional person out of their fixed position and into a problem-solving mode.

“He is a lying son of a bitch.” “The truth is important to you. You think he is not telling the whole story.”
“She is a lazy slob.” “You would like her to clean up her messes more often. Cleanliness is important to you.”

Confirms the value and meaningfulness of another’s experience and helps the person to feel safe. Allows for venting of steam, so that the person can let go of anger or frustration or other strong feelings. It is not talking someone out of their feelings, making everything better, solving a problem, or explaining things. Note: Validating someone else’s experience does not invalidate our own experience.

“I understand you feeling that way.”  “You’re really wanting to be with your mother.” “It’s okay to feel that way.” “Oh, that sounds really tough.” “Wow, that’s a lot to deal with.” “Yeah, you felt like you were really being clear.”

In Ximena Vengoechea’s book “Listen Like You Mean It,” she offers advice on how to reflect back what you heard. Her suggestion is to reflect back the TL;DR version of your conversation partner’s message, or “the headline, not the whole piece.”

TL;DR Headline: “You’re feeling ashamed about your continual medical issues and are scared people are not taking you seriously.” “You wish your mother would ask your permission before interfering on your behalf. You want your autonomy to be respected.” “You wish I would wait until we’re alone to talk to you about money.”
The long story they told that you are summarizing back to them: A series of medical stories and the frustrating parts about each incident that involved how family, friends, and doctors responded to them. A long story about his mother calling her doctor to ask questions and get recommendations. An emotional story of how awful it felt the other day when you made a big deal in front of friends about a purchase that was made.

Again, check here to learn more about RRV!

Empathic Guessing
A big part of RRV is paraphrasing what you understood. It is important not to tell the person what they meant, but rather present it as a guess in the form of a statement. These carefully crafted statements are hidden questions that give a person the opportunity to reflect and correct you if you understood incorrectly. Sounds like magic!

Should you feel as if these statements are too bold for you when you begin practicing, you can add a question to confirm your understanding at the end: “…is that right?” Or, “…is that what you meant?”

We go into that more on this page, and below are some ways of leading into your guesses in a way that acknowledges you are offering an interpretation and want to confirm your understanding.

  • “What I’m hearing is…”
  • “It sounds like you…”
  • “So I’m getting from that…”
  • “It sounds like…”
  • “You’re thinking A and feeling B.”
  • “You’re feeling XYZ, or no?”
  • “Please correct me if you need to, but what I’m hearing is…”
  • “What I’m understanding is that you are…”
  • “I’m picking up that…”
  • “It seems like you…”
  • “So you’re maybe saying that…”

Try it Out

Write down three things that would be REALLY hard for you to hear. If you want, you can relate them to a recent or current conflict you’re dealing with. Then, imagine someone saying them to you, and you RRV’ing them and yourself (getting behind what might be behind the fictional other, and for yourself as well).

RRV Summary

To Do it: 

  • When someone expresses something emotionally charged or vague, you can use RRV to name the emotion, reframe the message in terms of their wants and needs, and validate their experience.
  • Reflect back the emotion you hear in their tone and facial expressions.
  • Reframe the content of their expression to highlight what they want, need, and value.
  • Validate their experience by telling them it is normal, understandable, and meaningful.

To Help You Do It:

Quality Questions

The Art Of Asking Questions | Dan Moulthrop | TEDxSHHS
Dan Moulthrop walks us through artfully asking questions. He admonishes us to do seven things when asking questions: be fearless, be curious, ask what’s obvious, be mindful of word choice, strive for empathy, be informed, and keep it simple.

  1. Be unafraid – Be brave and ask tough questions. People often want to share about these things.
  2. Be curious – Wonder about people’s experiences and why things are the way that they are.
  3. Ask about what is obvious – Sometimes the obvious questions don’t get asked because they are obvious! Make sure to address them
  4. Be mindful of word choice – The difference between a carefully selected, intentional word and something automatic can make all the difference. Choose words intentionally.
  5. Strive for empathy – You will connect with others and come up with better questions when you empathize with them. Imagine what their experience could be like and ask how it is.
  6. Be informed – Don’t ask someone something they have already been asked. You can show respect by staying informed before you ask someone a question.
  7. Be simple – Do not try to ask over-complicated questions or too many questions. Try to boil it down to something simple and straightforward.
  8. Be gracious – Show gratitude when asking people questions- they are giving of themselves to answer you!

Quality questions are those that encourage insight and discovery. Talking and being listened to helps us affirm and develop the personal narrative that makes sense of our lives and experiences, so being asked quality questions that enhance this process tends to feel wonderful. 

When was the last time you told someone about something you were experiencing and they asked insightful questions that caused you to rethink how you were approaching the situation? Having the additional perspective of others in our lives gives us a broader vision for considering our experiences. Quality questions do this by honing in on what is most important, pulling out glossed over details, and connecting the dots (like a good editor would!)

What is the make-up of a high-quality question? They are:

  • Sincere – Based in genuine curiosity and a loving agenda.
  • Insightful – Introduce a new angle of perception that helps illuminate or clarify knowns and unknowns
  • Open-Ended – They prompt us to think and cannot be answered yes/no.
  • Non-Judgmental – They do not have a ‘right’ answer, do not have a hidden agenda, and aren’t leading us anywhere.

Sincere Questions

Children have an unmatched capacity for asking questions– one study found that four years-olds ask roughly 300 questions a day!

Because they are discovering how the world works, these endless queries are endearingly sincere. Everything is full of mystery and magic for them and their curiosity to understand leads them to ask how and why things are the way they are. Children have a primary intention to understand.

Like kids, we need to frame our questions based on wanting to understand not just the content, but the unique experiential and emotional aspects of a message. Staying aligned with that intention will keep our questions sincere.

Sometimes, and often unintentionally, our questions show up as Trojan Horses: ulterior messages masquerading as questions. Having agendas such as to problem solve, offer our perspective, or influence someone’s behavior will interfere with the quality of our questions.

If we stay tethered to our will to understand, support, and connect to someone we will be more likely to end up asking empathic questions that prompt them to go deeper and find more detail.

Examples of How Our Intentions Affect Our Questions

Conversation Partner: “Work sucked last week. My coworker got sick and wasn’t able to come in so I had to pick up all his slack.”
Intention* Question Translation** Sincere Question Alternative
To problem solve “How can we stop that from happening again?”
“What is the sick policy and can it change?”
If we can understand the problem better we can find solutions to fix it. How can I fix this for you? “Yikes… is there a way I can help? Do you want to talk about solutions?”
To assert our view “Do you also think that guy was faking it?”
“Where was that absentee boss of yours?”
I think that guy was faking it.
I think your boss is the worst.
You deserve more support.
“That sounds rough. What do you think happened?”
To influence behavior “Who did you ask for help?”
“Have you told them that’s too much work yet?”
You should have asked for help.
You should’ve told them it’s too much work.
“Ah man, tell me more about what that was like.”
To understand, support, connect “How did that feel?”
“Could you tell me more about what that was like?”
“How did that affect you?”
“What would you have preferred to have happened?”
Tell me more about what that experience was like for you. I want to understand your experience better. These ones are sincere! 🙂

*This is not an exhaustive list of possible intentions. See Cosmetic and Persuasive styles, and our section on Intention. Also, 12 Ways to Cut Off Connection offers habits we have in conversation that often are contradictory to our ideal outcome.
**Translations aren’t always the same. Depending on your intention, you could ask the same question and have a totally different meaning (ie., “Where are you going?” could mean someone wants to genuinely know where you are going, or it could mean “How dare you leave right now!”).  It all comes down to genuine curiosity and your intention.

To stay sincere with your questions, remind yourself of your primary agenda to understand.
Consider if the question you are wanting to ask contributes first and foremost to understanding, or another intention. If another, simply recognize that and take a moment to shift.

Stay curious like a child, and you may surprise yourself by how much you can learn!

Insightful Questions
Insightful questions hone in on the important information in a conversation and encourage elaboration. Since our agenda in Elevated Conversation is to deeply understand someone, the important information has to do with their humanity: their emotional experiences, their values, beliefs, and dreams.

The School of Life, an organization dedicated to helping people develop emotional intelligence (amongst many other things!), suggests we imagine ourselves as an editor while listening.

Editors help the author:

  • Clarify their meaning
  • Direct the flow of ideas (as appropriate)
  • and sometimes (when the author trusts them) add their own flourishes to enhance a story.

This is a service to the author as it helps them deliver their message in a more effective manner than they could alone. It is a collaborative process; it is a conversation. 

Truly insightful questions encourage us to go deeper into the meatier parts of someone’s message that commonly get glossed over. What are the meatier parts? Feelings, values, and the level of impact of an experience. This goes on to include things like our preferences, dreams, desires, hopes, and stories about who we are and how we came to be this way. These questions demonstrate that we’re paying attention and are interested in the other person’s experience.

How to Make Someone Fascinating, Help them Gain Insight, and Increase your Connection!

Ask about Feelings

  • “What did that feel like?”
  • “What kind of emotions were you experiencing?”
  • “How was that for you?”
  • “What was going on inside you during that?”
  • “I imagine you felt XYZ, did you? What else?”

Ask about Values

  • “What were you wanting?”
  • “What is most important to you in all of this?”
  • “What determined your behavior/choice?”
  • “How does that line up with what you care about?”
  • “If you could wave a magic wand, how would the situation change and why?”
  • “What about this matters most to you?”

Ask about Impact

  • “How much of an impact has this had on you?”
  • “Have you changed in any way because of this?”
  • “How does this affect you?”
  • “How does this affect your life?”
  • “How significant is this?”
  • “How big or small does this seem to you?”

How to Have a Good Conversation
This video from The School of Life explains how to zero in on the most important parts of someone’s message and ask questions that elicit vulnerable, informative answers that help us understand and connect with another person more deeply. The School of Life admonishes us to focus on feelings, values, and personal meaning.

Some examples of questions that pull out more information…

Conversation Between a Mother and Son, with Breakdown
“Hey hun how was school?” Open question.
“Fine.” One word, nondescript and unspecific answer
“…Fine, huh? Just another lackluster day or what?” Asks for elaboration.
“Yeah I’m just tired.” Affirmation and small elaboration (kind of a “shrug” answer)
“I’m hearing some boredom or exasperation, is that right?” Reflects back emotions, offers a guess.
“I mean, yeah.”
“What was boring or exasperating today?”Asks for elaboration.
“Everything. The classes lasted forever and I sat alone at lunch again and my walk was so long in the heat and I’m just tired.” Answer lists off several things and ends in the same “shrug” description
“Dang, that sounds like a long day bud. What’s going on at lunch?” Validates, then zeros in on the part of the message that was rushed over but may hold the key to the emotional state: being alone at lunch.

Conversation Between Partners

“How do you feel about having kids?” Open-ended question
“Ah, this again? Really?” Deflective response
I’m sensing some defensiveness. Does that mean you don’t want to talk about it? Reflection and bid for clarity
“No, it’s not that… I’m just worried we’re not going to come to an agreement.” Shares emotion/concern
“What about that scares you?” Insightful question
“Well what if we can’t agree? What does that mean for our relationship? One of us is going to be unhappy!” Elaborates
“Oh, you think this conversation could be a threat to our relationship?” Reframes and checks for clarity
“Yeah, maybe.”
“Mm yeah I’m scared about it, too. I think that’s normal for both of us. And, it is still important to me to address it… “ Validates and reveals

Perhaps asking vulnerable questions of this nature is a bit scary.

We could be worried we’re going to offend someone, be intrusive, or open a conversation pathway that makes us personally uncomfortable.

It’s true that having Elevated Conversation puts us at risk for potential discomfort. Because of this, Better Listening invites us to be courageous and sit with discomfort in order to enable the possibility of deeper connection and understanding.

If you’re interested in having more meaningful conversations, more meaningful questions are a part of the equation.

This means asking about what you’re genuinely curious about and bravely approaching the threshold of vulnerability! Of course, there are various social circumstances in which certain questions are inappropriate, so you’ll have to employ your personal wisdom to determine what risks are reasonable.

Inappropriate Questions? Asking your boss about their sex life at a work event isn’t necessarily a courageous move; it’s likely off kilter. However, noticing that they mention something about not having seen their family all weekend, may serve as a clue that they miss them, feel overwhelmed by work, or are avoiding something. You could leave this comment unaddressed, assuming it is more respectful not to be nosy. However, your boss did put out the breadcrumbs of their own accord. Is it possible they want to talk about it but don’t feel it’s totally appropriate to launch into un-prompted? Asking with genuine curiosity what it’s like not to have seen them invites vulnerability and connection without forcing them into an awkward corner. People can always choose not to answer your questions. Asking a question does not force someone to answer. Consider giving them the responsibility to set their own boundaries, instead of trying to respect imaginary ones you built for them yourself.

Insightful Questions Alleviate Small Talk!

In casual conversation, we sometimes ask questions out of politeness, which is cosmetic. While cosmetic questions may seem to serve certain social situations, they do little to help you authentically connect with and understand someone better.

Perhaps you do genuinely want to know what someone does for a living, but what happens when they respond with a career you know nothing about, or their job is something they  (or you) don’t care about at all? How does this question help you understand how this person operates in the world?

People become much more interesting when they talk about:

  • what they care about (values)
  • the challenges they’ve faced (impacts)
  • and what they feel (feelings)

It is our job as listeners to figure out how to engage with this aliveness in them!

This isn’t to say small talk doesn’t have a place at all. Like asking your boss personal questions, you need to use your personal wisdom to assess the relationship. Small talk, while often boring, helps us suss out new people and determine if they are safe to develop a relationship with. Some cosmetic conversation is naturally going to occur. However, you’re going to be better able to connect with a new person when you ask questions about what they care about versus what they do.

Small Talk Cosmetic Questions Why it’s not as Effective Small Talk Quality Questions Why it’s Better
So what do you do? People tend to answer this as “what is your job?” And sometimes people aren’t working a job that is also their identity. If this is the case, they may not be passionate or want to talk about it. Answering this question may be something they dread, as it doesn’t reflect who they truly are or what they care about. How was your day? What did you do? This question is specific, story-oriented, and shows interest in something both personal and immediate, creating the opportunity for emotions and the impact of an experience to enter the conversation more quickly.
Do you have a spouse? Yes/No closed question *see below What’s your family like? While specific and filled with rich possibility, out of the blue with a stranger this one may be a bit intimate. However, if led by a more generic, less vulnerable question (like ‘do you have a spouse?’) it works as a great segue to understanding where a person comes from.
Where are you from? Potentially a closed-ended question if you cannot relate to the answer. How did you end up here? Story-oriented and creates a sense of shared reality (since both of you ended up “here”)
Where’d you go to school? Potentially a closed-ended question if you cannot relate to the answer. What’s your favorite thing about this job/town/event? This gets to personal values, preferences, and potentially emotions.
Do you have a hobby? Potentially a closed-ended question if you cannot relate to the answer. What are you passionate about? Open-ended question with many possible ways to answer. Generously assumes the person cares about something and aims at their values, preferences, and experiences.

Will Wise, author of “Ask Powerful Questions,” suggests we generate quality questions by thinking about someone’s “map.” Imagine everyone has a map for their life that illustrates their journey, their possibilities, their identity, the landmarks of their lives, etc. (essentially their ‘stories’).

It is a map of what they believe to be true, the landscape of how they view themselves and their life. You can even imagine a unique map people have for any situation you could be conversing about: their map about schooling, politics, body image, or love for example. Wise suggests we ask the following questions in regard to their map:

  • Where are you on your map?
  • How did you get there?
  • Where are you going?
  • What does your map look like? What are the landmarks?
  • How was your map made?

The map metaphor is incredibly useful for gaining a depth of understanding we don’t commonly know how to aim for. These questions help us get to someone’s values, motivations, and development. You can ask these questions about someone’s map of love or career, or their map of a particular relationship or problem in their life. More examples below.

“Diet” Map Questions

  • What are your eating habits like?
  • How have your eating habits changed over time?
  • What goals do you have for your eating habits?
  • What has influenced your eating habits?

“How They Relate to Work” Map Questions

  • What do you think is the value of work? How do you feel about working?
  • How have your habits and feelings about working changed over time?
  • What goals do you have for your working habits?
  • How did you develop the habits you have?

“Role of Religion in Your Life” Map Questions

  • What is your current spiritual life like?
  • In what ways was it different in the past?
  • What do you think is the ultimate role of religion?
  • What are your spiritual values?
  • How did you develop your current relationship with religion?

And a few more things to consider getting clarity on:

  • What are they communicating about themselves or their beliefs/values with what they are saying?
    • Ex. ”Some people are just slobs!”
    • What to notice: Maybe they believe it is better to be orderly and they value cleanliness.
  • What gaps do they leave in their story?
    • Ex. “I got into cars after my second business failed. I began attending shows and making connections with important people in the classic car industry…”
    • What to notice: They skipped past that ‘second business failure’ comment pretty quickly. How did that lead to them getting into cars? What happened with the first business?
  • What are they telling you that isn’t important?
    • Are they going on side quests as they communicate, telling you extra details? If you’re wondering if its relevant, you can ask. You can also reflect back what you’re hearing and try to relate it to their original pitch to help them get back on track. Sometimes everything they are saying is important, and sometimes not.
  • What are they leaving out because they’re too close to the subject?
    • An expert in any subject may leave out details that are obvious to them. You will need to follow closely to find gaps that you need more information on, then ask very specific questions to help them fill in the information.
  • Do they ever contradict themselves?
    • Most of us do it without even noticing. If you pick up on these and offer them to people, it gives them insightful fodder for thought.
    • Ex. Someone saying, “People need to set boundaries so they don’t get walked all over,” and later acting resentful and complaining about a friend who should ‘just’ know not to come by without calling first but does so all the time.

Insightful questions encourage us to elaborate and expand on the parts of conversation that matter for connection and empathic understanding: our feelings, values, the impact of our experiences, our hopes, dreams, desires, preferences, and stories. They aim at the why and how of who we are and what we’re experiencing. By asking questions that nudge others to explain what they felt about an experience, what it meant to them, and how it fits into their ‘map,’ we can help them gain clarity, learn about themselves and deepen the relationship.

Open-Ended Questions

Quality questions invite story-like answers that allow a person to express what is valuable to them. That means asking questions that can elicit complex responses. You can do this by avoiding closed-ended questions and instead aiming for open-ended questions.

Closed-Ended Questions

  • Aimed at a simple, specific piece of information
  • Can be answered in one word or a simple sentence
    • Yes/No Questions
  • Has a limited number of possible answers
  • Tend to start with:
    • Is, Did, Do, Does, Where, When, Who, Have, Are
  • May not lead to more questions
  • Gives the question-asker control over the conversation
  • Where are you from?
  • Do you like coffee or tea?
  • When did you move here?
  • Who told you that?
  • Did you just arrive?
  • Is it your birthday?

Open-Ended Questions

  • Aimed at understanding something more complex with greater depth
  • Begs to be answered in a longer fashion; several sentences or stories
  • Doesn’t have a ‘right’ answer
  • Tend to start with:
    • How, What, Why*
  • Easily creates opportunities for more questions
  • Gives the person being asked the question control over the conversation

*See Nonjudgmental Questions Section

  • How did you become a champion chess player?
  • What inspired you to study psychology?
  • Why* did you decide to get married?
  • How did that feel?
  • What is an example of that?
  • Tell me about your favorite birthday.

Try to ask questions that give someone the opportunity to choose their own adventure in terms of how they answer.

Imagine your question is written on a white board and you’re handing the person the marker. How much freedom does your question give to the speaker? Does the answer space have a multiple choice answer or a certain number of boxes for them to pick between and check off?

Unless the question necessitates a space for them to free-write (several sentences at least; and the longer or more complex an answer, the more open the question), it isn’t an open-ended question!

Open-ended questions invite people to express themselves on their own terms, allowing us to see them more clearly and potentially connect more deeply. When we ask closed-ended questions, the answers and options are more limited, and thus so are the possibilities for deeper understanding.

Strangers Meet at a Friend’s Party

Closed-Ended Questions Conversation

Hey, I’m Becky, nice to meet you.  You are..?
Oh, I’m Gerald. Nice to meet you. Do you know Carl?
Yes, we’ve been friends for several years. Do you know him?
No, I’m actually here with my girlfriend. There’s a lot of people I don’t know.
Oh, well now you know me! Who else do you know?
Haha, well you, my girlfriend and Richard.
Oh Richard is great. I heard he’s from Chicago. Are you also?
No, I’m from Florida.
I love Florida. Have you been to Destin?
Yeah it’s okay, have you been to Miami?

Notice how the nature of this conversation stays fairly superficial. While they are getting bits and pieces about each other, there isn’t very much depth to this conversation. Neither party is sharing or asking about very personal things. These questions basically all prompt one-word answers and put pressure on the other person to carry the conversation forward.

Open-Ended Questions Conversation

Hey, I’m Becky, nice to meet you.  You are..?
Oh, I’m Gerald. Nice to meet you. How do you know Carl?
We actually met during a ceramics class we were taking back in college.
Oh wow, I’ve always wanted to do ceramics. What do you like about it?
Oh, everything! I actually majored in it. I love the feel of the clay and the fact that you can build so many useful and beautiful things. I don’t really do it anymore though.
You sound like a creative person. Why did you stop?
I pursued a different career in film, actually. It’s a bit of a story…

In this conversation, Gerald chooses to hand the reigns of expression over to Becky, asking her about her history and her passions. With questions that prompt story-like answers, the nature of the conversation is instantly more interesting, deeper, and intimate. Tons of interesting information bubbles to the surface to explore, and the conversation can take many new directions.

Non-Judgmental Questions

While we don’t intend to, our questions are often loaded with judgment, and the person we ask these questions of often senses it better than we do.

Consider the following questions:

  • Why were you late?
  • Why did you ask that?
  • Why couldn’t you change your mind?
  • Why would you study ceramics?

These questions aren’t necessarily judgmental. The judgment in them (if it is there) is communicated with the “Inquisitional Why.” An Inquisitional Why is a Why that interrogates someone, seeking an explanation for a course of action that seems implausible, unreasonable, or unjustifiable to the questioner.

If “Why?” can ever be answered with, “Because I’m wrong/ stupid/ bad/ sad/ mad/ inconsiderate, etc,” it is a poor question that is putting someone on the defensive.

“Why” can be an excellent word! It seeks to understand the cause of an event or decision.

The tricky bit with utilizing it effectively is that it often is used to imply something that the person should have done. “Should” is a judgment. These questions end up not meaning “why,” but “you should’ve…”

  • Why were you late? …could be: “You should’ve been on time.”
  • Why did you ask that? …could be: “You shouldn’t ask questions like that.”
  • Why couldn’t you change your mind? …could be: “You should’ve just changed your mind.”
  • Why did you study ceramics? …could be: “You should’ve chosen something more practical.”

Even if we don’t mean to “should” on someone with our Why questions, they could be construed that way. When people feel judged, a common response is to defend ourselves. Defensiveness in a conversation is a slippery slope to escalation and folks shutting down.

Lucky for us, there is a trick for transforming your Inquisitional Whys to genuine Whys by re-wording them– that is, of course, if they are genuine; meaning, they’re truly curious and free of judgment. 

*Keep looping back to intention and regulation to recenter yourself when you notice judgment creeping in!*

Let’s say a couple is meeting for dinner and one person is late. Let’s call them Jack and Jill. Jill was late. Let’s see two ways the conversation might go when she arrives…

Inquisitional Why

Jack: Why are you so late? I’ve been here for over an hour and you didn’t answer my calls.

Translation – You shouldn’t have been late.

Internal – Jack: Feeling irritated and exasperated.

Jill: Hey, I’m sorry! It wasn’t intentional, ok? I can’t keep everybody happy at once! Why are you blowing this out of proportion?

Translation – You’re overreacting/ you shouldn’t react like you are.

Internal – Jill: Feeling defensive.

Jack: We’ve just had this planned for two weeks and I skipped my poker night for this but it doesn’t seem as important to you.

Internal – Jack: Still frustrated and now defensive as well.

Jill: It is important to me, my brother called because he’d lost his job and was in a state. He was hysterical so I chose to prioritize that!

Internal – Jill: More defensive.

Jack: Why would you prioritize that at that moment when you had plans? Why didn’t you just tell him you could talk to him later tonight? It wasn’t a life or death situation!

Translation – Talking to your brother isn’t as important as keeping your agreements/ Our relationship should take precedence.

Internal – Jack: Angry

Genuine “Why”

External – Jack: What happened?*

Internal – Jack: Notices he feels frustrated. Tries to stay in a place of curiosity.

External – Jill: Hey, I’m sorry! My brother called because he lost his job and was totally hysterical. You seem very irritated.

Internal – Jill: Feels sorry and empathetic towards Jack.

External – Jack: Yeah I’m just disappointed. I was looking forward to this and rearranged my plans and I’m worried that you aren’t prioritizing it the way I have been. I want to understand what led you to choose to take the call with your brother?

Internal – Jack: Sad, disappointed, worried, confused and curious.

External – Jill: Ack I’m sorry you’re disappointed Jack. I didn’t realize this was so important to you. My brother had designed his life around that job and is totally devastated. It was a crisis I really wanted to support him through.

Internal – Jill: Sad, ashamed.

You’ll notice that in the second conversation, there was very little defensiveness because neither party felt judged by the other. This is partially due to lack of inquisition, but also due to tone. *Tone conveys sincerity beyond words. Jack and Jill wanted to truly understand what the other person was experiencing and offer their own experience to increase understanding and connection.

In these two conversations, you can see that the format of the Inquisitional Why was transformed to questions that started with “What,” “I want to understand…” “Can you tell me more about…” etc.

While that may help the person being questioned feel less judged, these changed questions can still communicate judgment if it is there. Simply changing the form of the words doesn’t always fix the underlying issue!

No matter how many mattresses were laid on top of the pea, the princess could still feel it was there. It’s the same with the Inquisitional Why.

Being conscious enough to shift your language can help you identify your judgments, but the real work lies in releasing them and cultivating genuine curiosity and compassion.

In other words, you need to find the pea and flick it out of there!

If you’re having trouble finding out which one you’re using, ask yourself,

Is this an Inquiry or an Inquisition?

A Few More Notes on Quality Questions: Check for Omissions and Check for Understanding

  • People often omit information- so listen for what wasn’t said!

Questions are so valuable because they help us pull out information from a speaker’s message that may be omitted or obscured. When we communicate, we make assumptions, leave out details for the sake of brevity or lack of awareness regarding what is obvious, or use abstractions that don’t truly get to the meat of what we mean.

Think of an elite gymnast explaining how to do a complex move. They may be so immersed in their craft that they don’t know what details they are glossing over (how to move your body weight in such a manner or get enough lift, for example) because they seem obvious or automatic to them– but could be completely beyond the knowledge of their audience.

We can listen for particular ways of saying things that leave details out- and ask about them!  Tease out the missing or glossed over content by noticing when something gets omitted:

When they leave something out:

  • Simple – “I was afraid” → afraid of whom / what specifically?
  • Comparative – “We need to get better” → Compared to whom or what? On what scale? Where a 1 is ____, and a 10 is _____?
  • Lack of Referent – “No One Likes Me” → Who doesn’t like you? or “Strong People could do this” → Who is strong enough to do this?
  • Unspecified Verbs – “He Rejected me” → What does ‘rejection’ look like?

When they assume you know what they mean by their word choice without being specific:

  • “I wish I had some recognition” →What would it look like to be recognized?
  • “I’m in a lot of pain” →What does that feel like? Where do you feel it?
  • “I need some help here” →What would helping you entail?
  • “You need to get your priorities straight?” →How do you decide? What is important?

When they use absolutes (always, never, no one, everyone, etc):

  • No one is nice to me → Who specifically? Also, what does ‘nice’ mean?
  • Everyone is mean → Who specifically?
  • You’re always so bossy → When, specifically?
  • I will never do this! → Never is a long time, is there one situation in which you might do this?

When they speak as if things are either one way or the other:

  •  I can’t do this without help → What would that help look like?
  •  I have to do my homework →Who is making you? How?
  •  I should do this or that →What would happen if you didn’t?

When they obscure cause and effect without specification:

  •  You piss me off → What did you see me do or say?
  •  I’m sad because you’re late → What about my lateness affects your feelings?

When they ‘read your mind’ or project their thoughts onto you/others:

  • You hate me → What suggests that s/he hates you?
  • He has no idea what he’s doing → How do you know?
  • Everyone is judging me! → How do you know?

Checking for Understanding and Clarity
Don’t forget to make sure you fully comprehended what they meant. It is a shame to walk away from a conversation feeling that you completely understood only to find out later that you assumed incorrectly! Use some of the following questions after someone has shared something to determine if you’re on the same page:

  • Could you clarify what you meant by ___?
  • You were talking about ___, did I get that right?
  • What I’m hearing is ___, does that sound accurate?
  • It sounds like ___, is that what you meant?
  • Here’s what I got:___. Does that sound like what you wanted me to understand?
  • I’m not sure I totally got that.
  • Can you elaborate?
  • Help me understand a bit better, could you go over that again?
  • Would you be open to sharing some more detail?
  • I don’t think I’m fully getting your meaning. Here is what I understand, and this is why it confuses me…
  • Do you mean ___?

Try It Out

Practice: StoryCorps is a program that encourages people to interview family members and friends about their experiences and relationships. We’re going to mimic their set-up, with a focus on practicing asking quality questions.

Begin by thinking of a family member or friend or even an acquaintance that you realize you don’t know much about their life. Arrange a time to talk with them in person, on the phone, or over video chat.

Begin your conversation with any of the following questions (picked from the StoryCorps question list)

  • Who has been the biggest influence on your life? What lessons did that person or those people teach you?
  • If you could hold on to memories from your life forever, which would they be?
  • If you could talk to a younger version of yourself, what would you say?

Once they begin answering, listen to them! Notice when your curiosity is piqued or you find yourself wondering if you fully understand or might be making assumptions about what they mean. When the space opens up, ask your questions.

Ask at least one of each:

  • An open-ended question
  • An insightful question
  • A sincere question
  • A non-judgmental question to gain clarity

You can prep these questions ahead of time if you know what you want to ask the person about in the first place. Sit down and connect to what you really want to know and understand about them.

Quality Questions Summary

To Do it: 

  • By checking in on your intentions, paying attention, and cultivating genuine curiosity you can form questions that are:
    • Sincere – Based in genuine curiosity and a loving agenda.
    • Insightful – Introduce a new angle of perception that helps illuminate or clarify knowns and unknowns
    • Open-Ended – Prompt story-like answers.
    • Non-Judgmental – They do not have a ‘right’ answer, do not have a hidden ‘should,’ and aren’t leading us anywhere. 

To Help You Do It:

  • Listening Interview: A wonderful way to learn about the role of listening in our lives is through interviewing. Interviewing puts us in the frame of mind to try to really understand another person and do our best to get the full picture. Not only that, but this interview is about listening itself, so it’s a two-for-one!
  • Conversation Starter Questions List
  • StoryCorps Great Questions – A master list of questions to ask generally and by topic to ensure an interesting conversation!


“…Candor and transparency are the unshakeable foundation for true safety.” – Jim Dethmer Conscious Leadership Co-Founder

Elevated Conversation begs us to be vulnerable and self-disclose.

By revealing ourselves with honesty and courage we not only create permission for the other person to be vulnerable, but we also increase the possibilities for intimacy.

Revealing is related to Better Listening skills because it informs the speaker that you are processing their words, relating to them, and informs them of how their message is landing (especially if it involves you). The act of revealing perpetuates the collaborative nature of Elevated Conversation.

As author Mark Manson puts it, “Vulnerability is consciously choosing to NOT hide your emotions or desires from others.”

Being vulnerable is generally uncomfortable, which is why so many of us avoid it. We’re worried we’ll be seen as weak or emotional or needy or scared- or sometimes even the opposite of all those things. And who wants what they’re afraid of to come to pass?

Engaging in vulnerability requires courage because it admonishes us to stay with our discomfort. Seeing the value of revealing ourselves and being vulnerable requires a reframe of what is at risk.

Imagine a father who has lost his job coming home and being visibly upset but saying nothing to his children. His oldest son knows something is wrong, but when he asks his father about it his father says everything is fine and not to concern himself. The father ends up being distant for several weeks and his kids are concerned, feel disconnected, and feel confused.

Because he was unwilling to reveal that he lost his job for fear of seeming incapable or weak as a provider, he maintained his sense of safety and illusion of control over his kids’ opinion of him. However, he lost the opportunity to share his humanity with his son when he asked, and thus lost an opportunity for increased closeness and empathy.

Oftentimes being vulnerable feels too risky, and we end up losing the opportunity to be known for what we truly are, and therefore the opportunity to experience being loved as we truly are.

Shifting an Issue by Revealing
In this video from the Conscious Leadership Group, founder Jim Dethmer explains the value of revealing things you’ve been withholding from another person (anything that has come up for you three or more times that you haven’t shared). He explains why we might withhold information and how withholding can impact the relationship by causing us to not show up fully. You can find oodles of wonderful resources for revealing (part of their Commitment called Candor) on their website here.

Self-disclosure has been shown repeatedly as a way to build trust and create more intimacy in relationships 1,2,3.

By taking the emotional risk to be uncomfortable and test or build the strength of the relationship, we create the relationship. Perhaps it’s a bigger risk not to be vulnerable – you could end up risking not experiencing that intimacy at all.

As with asking appropriate questions, there are different scenarios that determine what is appropriate to reveal.

This hinges on:

  • The type of relationship you have with the person (partner, parent, co-worker, boss, student, stranger, etc)
    • If this person feels like a safe person to share with
  • The purpose of your conversation (to teach, to find agreement, to express, to plan, etc)
  • and various social norms (how we show up at work, different cultural definitions of politeness, etc)

How do you determine what the appropriate depth of self-disclosure is?

In order to know you have to reveal that you want to reveal! Check-in about how open the other person is to receiving it, just like in the agreements section.

  • “I want to share about ___, are you open to receiving that?”

What kind of content gets revealed in Elevated Conversation?

Many, many things; but generally feelings, thoughts, ignorance, and agenda are the helpful categories to keep in mind.

  • Feelings: Both positive and challenging emotions are helpful to disclose: fear, elation, sadness, peace, confusion, sureness, etc.
  • Thoughts: What you think about a particular situation or idea they’ve expressed. **(see below)
  • Ignorance: Sharing when you do not know or do not understand is pivotal in Elevated Conversation. It enables you to seek clarity and further deepen understanding of what the other person is expressing.
  • Agenda: Revealing your agenda/intention, especially if it changes, helps you navigate together.

**Revealing is for both the other person and yourself. It’s a tricky thing to pin down, because we want to be careful not to usurp the conversation and distract from their message. Revealing something within ourselves should be done with the intention of helping the one we are listening to clarify their message, affirm that we are (and how we are) receiving it all in an effort to maximize understanding. We must be careful that our self-disclosure doesn’t cross the line into the Egotist Listening Style. Our focus is still on them, and yet, an Elevated Conversation is a team-working venture. You can always check-in and ask about how they feel about the air-time you’re taking up!

Keep in mind, conversations (all of them, not just Elevated ones) are a cooperative act!

When you reveal information, you can contribute to and support the person you are listening to in clarifying their message and increasing understanding between the two of you (although you can’t expect someone to clarify simply by saying you don’t understand. It’s probably helpful to add in a request!).

By self-disclosing, we increase the odds of understanding because we can tailor our message and edit content to best meet the other person!

Try It Out

Reflect: Can you think of a  conversation you’ve had in which revealing how you felt or your intentions could have benefited the interaction?

  • What might an ideal scenario have looked like?
  • What kept you from revealing?
  • What would you do differently if you had the opportunity to have that conversation again?

Practice: For the next two days, consciously pay attention to whether or not you are withholding your thoughts, intention, feelings, or ignorance in your conversations. Then the following two days challenge yourself to consciously reveal the one you withheld the most.

A Reminder: If you’re wondering something or find yourself concerned about how something you are or are not doing is coming across, reveal that! Check-in and ask the other person what they think about!

Also! Not everyone will feel safe to share with. You are not obligated to reveal everything about yourself to every person you meet.

*See “Taking Care of Yourself While Listening” to help you navigate what to do when you don’t feel comfortable in conversation.

Reveal in Action

A coworker seems a bit off and you decide to ask them how they’re doing, as you notice their mood is low. They reply that they’re recently having a hard time because their best friend is in the hospital due to a potentially terminal illness.

You notice yourself flooded with sadness and compassion for their experience. You instantly relate to the position they’re in because you have recently lost someone very close to you. Thinking of what they must be going through begins to bring up your pain. You choose to channel that pain into your compassion for them instead of allowing it to consume or distract you from being present with them.

You choose to reveal to them that you recently lost someone as well and understand the challenge in it (emotion)- but also share that you do not know what it is like to witness someone go through a terminal illness (ignorance). You ask if there is a way that they like to be supported.

While on the phone with your father, he brings up the topic that people in your field of work do not have growth potential in the economy and that you would fare better in a different industry.

As he is speaking you notice a tightness in your throat and feel yourself beginning to get angry. You are interpreting his statements as criticism of your choices and feel sad that he doesn’t recognize your efforts and success in the work that you value. You have tried to speak with him about this in the past and it doesn’t land- the conversation tends to escalate because both of you are attached to your viewpoint and feel emotionally invested.

Instead of trying to debate him, you decide to reveal how you’re feeling, what you’re thinking, and make a request:

“Dad, I have a hard time when you bring up my work. We’ve talked about this a lot and it isn’t something we are making progress on right now. I start to feel a bit angry and want to be seen for my hard work. I would love to come to a place of understanding between us one day, and I don’t have the bandwidth to do that right now, as I’m not emotionally prepared for it. Can we make another time to intentionally talk about this if it is something you want to do?”

Reveal Summary

To Do it: 

  • Ask about the things you are wondering about rather than make assumptions and ‘mind read’ the other person’s meaning.
  • Be courageous and embrace vulnerability in order to increase understanding and connection.
  • eveal your agenda, emotions, thoughts, and ignorance as they pertain to deepening connection and understanding in your conversations.

To Help You Do It:

The Interpersonal Stage Summary

To Do it: 

  • The Interpersonal Stage is about engaging with our conversation partner by responding to them. There are a few ways to respond that are powered by Better Listening.
  • Reflect the emotion back to the person, Reframe their message in terms of the positive things they value or desire, and Validate their emotional experience.
  • Ask sincere, insightful, open and non-judgmental questions.
  • Reveal what is happening within your thoughts and emotions to support them and clarify their message.

Try our Elevated Conversation Guide to practice!

Listening Listening: The Gist Factors in Listening Styles and Levels of Listening Listening Challenges 1: the Dinner Guests Listening Challenges 2 Better Listening Elevated Conversation Hearing and Understanding Listening Practice and Exercises Listening Inspiration and Resources


  1. Laurenceau, J & Barrett, Lisa & Pietromonaco, Paula. (1998). Intimacy as an Interpersonal Process: the Importance of Self-Disclosure, Partner Disclosure, and Perceived Partner Responsiveness in Interpersonal Exchanges. Journal of personality and social psychology. 74. 1238-51. 10.1037//0022-3514.74.5.1238.
  2. Sprecher S, Treger S, Wondra JD, Hilaire N, Wallpe K. Taking turns: Reciprocal self-disclosure promotes liking in initial interactions. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 2013 Sep 1;49(5):860-6. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2013.03.017
  3.  Aron, A., Melinat, E., Aron, E. N., Vallone, R. D., & Bator, R. J. (1997). The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness: A Procedure and Some Preliminary Findings. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23(4), 363–377.