The woman in the center seat complains to the man against the window that the conference wasn’t all that helpful. “Do you work together?” I ask.
One hour later I’ve learned the pair are university science professors irritated at how hard it is to get funding for research that has no potential to earn a corporation millions. I’ve learned she’s a single mom. When her worst fear was confirmed by a pregnancy test, her boyfriend left and her family cut ties. She has no use for them or their faith now.
“Do you actually believe Jesus walked on water or came back to life? I just can’t believe in miracles.”
She makes herself uncomfortable with this blurted confession and quickly changes the subject back to her research, her original motivations for being a professor, how teaching isn’t changing the world like she dreamed or giving her enough time to be a better mom, how insignificant and guilty she feels so much of the time.
And then she hides her face in her hands and begins to cry. “I wish I believed in miracles,” she whispers.
This sort of thing happens to me all the time now. But never before I met Becky. My wife has a gift for bringing big moments out of small talk and she’s taught me how. “Everyone wants to talk about themselves,” she says. They just need the right question.
When did you…
…know this is what you wanted to be when you grew up? …meet her? …know you were really good at that?
How did you…
…feel when she said that? …learn how to do this? …know he was the one?
Why did you…
…study that? …move there? …give up on that dream?
My life is spent in conversation with strangers – on airplanes, at conferences, in the lobby after a concert. Some days I’m all talked out and greedy with my attention. I slip in my ear plugs and sleep on the flight home. I get lost in a book or a slew of emails in need of replies. But on better days bigger things happen.
“Will you pray for me?” the woman in the center seat finally asks. “Oh…what am I…never mind,” she backtracks.
“My sister is sick…” the man in the window seat breaks his silence.
There is no small talk. Listen generously. Ask good questions.