Ever noticed how some conversations with new people you meet just seem to flow out of nowhere, completely effortlessly?
There you are, engaged in the best conversation you’ve had in weeks or months, with a person you didn’t even know about a few moments ago.
What makes it all the more frustrating is the rarity and randomness of it all. Sometimes you want to have a good conversation with someone you like, and not a stranger.
Fortunately, there is a really easy technique to spark an engaging discussion with just about anyone: the FORD method.
How does it work?
FORD is short for Family, Occupation, Recreation and Dreams. These topics cover the 4 major pillars of a person’s life that defines their identity and who they are as a people.
To varying degrees, everyone likes to talk about themselves. Some people are open books, and will right away tell you of their deeper personal problems and intricacies. Others are more reserved, and reveal the inner workings of their lives to a select few people.
What makes the FORD method so great is its versatility. It works both for open books and reserved individuals, with just a bit of tact.
Ideally, questions should be tied to context. For instance, in a professional, work related setting, starting out with a “so what do you do?” works great. In most cases, this is kind of a closed answer though, “I’m a accountant, and you?”.
Closed answers aren’t fun for anybody, so a great a follow-up question is “how did you get into that?”
This completely opens up the conversation in a non-intrusive way. People will feel free to say how little, or how much they want to answer, without being pressured.
When asking open ended questions, you’re really looking out for “conversational anchors”. These are locations in the conversation that give you multiple information points, which provide you the possibility to ask multiple questions on different subjects. They also function as a useful “rewind button”, where you can go to a previous moment in the conversation if the current talking subject dried up.
As an example, let’s say you ask “cool, how did you get into accounting?”
The conversation partner replies: “Well, I had a choice between accounting or marketing, but I chose accounting because I always liked numbers.”
Let’s break down that reply and see just how many conversational paths that one phrase offers you:
- You could ask what in particular attracted them to marketing.
- Make a statement comparing marketing and then wait for their input.
- Ask if accounting was enough to scratch their “numbers itch”.
- Make a smartass comment / joke about them being the only ones who loved maths in school.
- Ask if they would make the same choice again, now that they have the benefit of hindsight.
- Say you were also tempted by marketing (though you shouldn’t lie if you weren’t)
This longer reply offers a bunch of conversational anchors you can pivot around. Some are FORD related, some aren’t. But either way, this allows you to learn a lot about a person.
Most people rarely get asked more meaty personal questions, so taking an interest in these is a change of pace for them, and shows that you genuinely find them interesting and know them better.
FORD isn’t an interrogation technique
FORD is a simple and effective conversation method, but if you’re not careful you run the risk of making the other person feel interrogated.
To prevent this, here are 4 simple guidelines to keeping your conversations light, breezy and fun:
1) Keep your questions vague and open
Don’t ask probing questions that seek concrete answers (unless appropriate to the conversation). Instead keep your questions open ended and ambiguous, especially for these two major benefits:
- The conversation partner can reveal as much or as little as he/she feels comfortable with, without feeling pressured.
- They have the space to tell a more complex and entertaining story, where they can go off on tangents.
2) Make statements of your own to keep the conversation balanced
The “Q&A” format has a “give and receive” dynamic, where the answerer seems to give almost all the information, but doesn’t get much in return from you.
To counteract this, and the interrogation effect, pitch in with statements and observations of your own. Give something back to the conversation partner, be it an idea, a tip or an emotion.
3) Be genuine, enjoy the other person
Without a doubt, the hardest thing about using the FORD technique is to come across as truly interested in what the other person has to say and who they are.
People feel genuine interest and are much more responsive to it. It’s easier to trust someone who is truthful in their intent. They’ll feel safe to open up, and can take the conversation into some surprisingly vulnerable places.
4) Sometimes, you need to get the hint
Some people of the people you will meet will inevitably give you short and curt answers even to your most innocent question. Not because they’re shy, but most likely because they simply don’t want to talk much at that point in time. Some might not even like you at all.
In that case, the only option you have is also the best one: disengage, and have fun with someone else.
Being comfortable having a conversation with anybody at any time is an awesome skill to have in life. It helps take your social life up a notch, and makes you feel at ease in almost any circumstance.