BACK POCKET QUESTION: a question you have readily available to use in any social situation with any audience that helps start conversation and open up dialogue.

When caught facing an acquaintance with zero words to fill the awkward silence between you, coming up with a conversation starter can seem next to impossible.  In that moment, pressure builds to turn the mood around, and that intensity almost stacks the odds against your chance of success.  Luckily, there is one trick to saving the interaction before it gets too out of hand. The “back-pocket question” is a simple strategy that will get you out of many awkward interactions and spur interesting conversations and friendships.

back pocket mccalls

Back pocket questions span a wide range of environments and functions.  Emotional Intelligence experts, relationship advisors, and professional interviewers are a few sources who recommend having one prepared to use to get to know someone better.  They recommend asking anything from “where are you from” and “what do you do?” to “what ice cream flavor describes you best?”  While many back pocket questions seem to be either painfully obvious or super cheesy, any one can be effective if the intent and meaning behind it is well thought out and purposeful.

I have a friend, Brian, who always found a way to ask people he met the same question.  It was, “if you could have the super power to fly or to be invisible, which one would you choose?”  He asked this, not just as an ice breaker (he can start a conversation with a log. he doesn’t need this strategy so much), but as a way to find out something he really wanted to know about the person.  He had a theory that most people choose flying because, of course, flying is awesome. Those who choose invisibility are up to no good because that’s sneaky, and what honest or worthy thing are you going to do with that?  His theory was supported with results, and he truly believed in it.

I watched him open up this conversation time after time, and aside from getting a glimpse into someone else’s mind, it was always a fun and lively interaction. Brian’s go-to question/test is good, and I admit I’ve used it a few times because he convinced me a bit of its validity. However, it’s not as personal to me, so it doesn’t work as well for my back pocket question.

Searching for my own back pocket question and incorporating lessons from people like Brian led me to a new formula.  First, identify a topic you are knowledgeable about.  Next, hone in on a topic you are passionate about. Then pinpoint something small, but significant that represents that topic. Take the big picture Finally, twist it around to form a question that will find out someone’s opinion on that detail.

Question Development formula :

(Area of Expertise + Deeply Held Belief) – Specificity = Back Pocket ?
Tiny Representative Detail

Ex. 1:

Soccer + People Show You Who They Are – Sports=   
Field Play Represents Attitude                             

Can you tell who someone is by watching them *play?
* Play can be replaced with whatever is going on (i.e. play sports, play music, bartend, etc.)

Ex. 2:

Music/Bands + Passion for music and life connected – My Particular Music =
Moods match music choice          

If one band/artist would play the soundtrack to your life, who would it be? 

These questions work for me because they are valuable to me.  I see influences of the bigger picture topics in everyday life so I can work them into everyday conversation with little effort. I would have the confidence and desire to ask these seemingly innocent little queries because their answers would give me a lot of insight into someone. Additionally, I could easily continue the conversation because of my experience with and feelings toward the topic.

The keys to successful back-pocket questioning is to put thought into developing your go-to question and to try it out in low-pressure situations to make sure it generates the conversation you imagine it will.