Meeting new people is one of the best things in life. Every significant other, friend, boss, coworker, neighbor or acquaintance you have was once just a stranger. And when you first met that stranger, you couldn’t have had any idea that you’d form the relationship you currently enjoy -- or could you have?
It’s impossible to learn everything you need to know about someone the first time you meet unless you have some sort of telepathic insight. But there are some questions you can ask that will give you a deeper, more accurate picture of someone than others.
Certainly, simple questions, like “Are you new here?” during a networking event, or, “Why did you leave your last job?” at a job interview will likely give you some necessary information. But they're not enough; they don’t tell you about the personality of the person you’re talking to.
The following five questions, in stark contrast, do. They’re designed to not only give you more direct information about the stranger or acquaintance you’re talking with, but also suggest profound insights about these people's personalities as a whole:
1. How would you describe yourself?
At first glance, this question might seem like cheating. The goal is to get a person to reveal his/her personality through secondary means, so isn’t asking this question a kind of shortcut?
Well, yes and no -- it’s all about the ambiguous phrasing, “How would you describe yourself?” rather than, “What’s your personality like?” or, “What do most people think of you?” Notice that there’s no cue here. You’re not asking a person to describe himself/herself physically, professionally, emotionally or any other specific way.
Instead, pay attention to the attributes your interviewee chooses to use to disclose first, and how extreme his or her word choices seem to be. Shy or meek people tend to choose humbler words like “observant” or “recreational,” while exuberant or extroverted people choose more powerful words like “smart” or “athletic.”
2. What is your biggest accomplishment?
This one gives you one critical piece of insight into a person’s past, but also tells you two subtle things about his or her personality. First, it shows where this individual's biggest interests lie; again, the question is ambiguous, so does he or she respond with a professional accomplishment or a personal one?
Also, how long ago did this accomplishment happen? How does he/she act in bringing it up? Next, how long did it take to think of it? If this "accomplishment" comes only after a long hesitation, that could be a sign of either many or few past accomplishments. You’ll have to probe deeper to find out.
3. Have you read any good books lately?
The answers you’ll get here vary wildly. First, note the difference between readers and non-readers. You’ll get the occasional person who'll admit, “I don’t read books,” but more often, among non-readers, you’ll find people hesitating a long time before coming up with a book, or reverting to a classic high school or college text.
Among actual readers, you’ll find popular novel consumers, business and self-help readers, literature fans, pop science adherents and several other types.
4. What is your dream job?
The more ambiguous the question, the better it is. The question isn’t, “What do you want in your next job?” or, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” but, “What is your dream job?” A sycophant in a job interview might simply describe the job he or she is applying for. Others may highlight creative pursuits. Still others will describe jobs that don’t exist (or are extremely rare), like “beer taster” or “puppy cuddler.”
Whatever the response, it will tell you whether someone’s given this a lot of thought or has never thought about it before.
5. Who is your personal hero?
This question gets you information that's a little more specific and more insightful -- through an obvious route. But I’ve found it a meaningful question to ask. You’ll find people who describe a family member or someone they knew in life; people who admire an athlete or pop culture celebrity; and people who look up to successful entrepreneurs or businesspeople.
You might be able to discern something about the intelligence or age of the person you’re talking to here, but more importantly, you’ll learn about his or her values. What is it that makes this "hero" stand out above anyone else who ever lived?
Overall, some of these questions are a little too forward to ask random strangers on the street, but once you’ve warmed up a new contact, feel free to break these out. How such people react, how they answer and how they phrase their answers will speak volumes about the type of person standing in front of you.
Those volumes of information are indispensable for any social interaction, be it a job interview, sales meeting or coincidental interaction. So, get out there and get to know people well. If you do, you’ll have far more opportunities in life.