A Thanksgiving Recipe for Success: Ask Questions
Imagine that at Thanksgiving dinner, you find yourself seated next to a cousin you like a lot but rarely see -- or better still, a devastatingly attractive friend of the family, someone you think you'd like to know better.
Here’s a quiz: What’s the best way to make a good impression?
- Talk about an amazing, exotic trip you took within the last year.
- Find a subtle way to disclose something impressive about yourself, preferably an achievement of some kind.
- Be funny and fun; tell plenty of jokes.
- Ask the person a lot of questions about herself or himself, combined with follow-up questions.
- Discuss, in the most interesting way you possibly can, something that’s in the news, whether it’s politics, books or music.
A lot of people act as if the right answer is (2) or (5). It isn’t.
If you picked (4), congratulations. Your cousin might become a good friend -- or you might get a date with the new acquaintance.
That’s the central lesson of recent research by Harvard University’s Karen Huang, Michael Yeomans, Alison Wood Brooks, Julia Minson and Francesca Gino. Huang and her colleagues began with a simple experiment, arranging two-person conversations with more than 400 people. They randomly assigned a task to one participant in these interactions: asking either a large or a small number of questions. The other participant was not made aware of that assignment.
After the conversation, people were asked what they thought about the person they had been talking to -- and what they thought that person thought about them.
The central finding was clear: People ended up most liking those who asked them a lot of questions. Notably, participants did not anticipate that. Those who asked few questions thought that their conversation partners liked them every bit as much as those who asked many questions. (Nope.)
Third-party observers, asked to read the transcripts and to predict how much people would like their partners, also got it wrong. They failed to see that participants would like people who asked a lot of questions. The lesson is that when you’re asked lots of questions, you feel drawn to the person who is asking them – and if you’re just observing the conversation, you probably won’t see that’s happening.
Huang and her colleagues later asked their research assistants to read the transcripts of the conversations and to rank participants in terms of “responsiveness,” using a scale that includes three factors: care, understanding and validation of their partners. Those who asked more questions were found to be more responsive. Apparently, people who are responsive, in conversation, are a lot more likely to be liked.
In support of that conclusion, Huang and her colleagues examined the specific kinds of questions that increase liking. In short, follow-up questions are best.
The reason appears to be that in order to ask such questions, you need to listen closely to what your conversational partner is saying. Follow-up questions demonstrate responsiveness. That’s why they’re effective in getting people to like you. (Which explains, by the way, why it’s not so charming to respond to someone’s story by asking, “What do you like doing for fun?” or by exclaiming, “That reminds me of a story about myself!”)
To see how their findings might apply in the real world, Huang and her colleagues tested their claims with an extensive study of speed-dating, involving 110 men and women, participating in 15 to 19 speed dates. After each date, people were asked whether they wanted a second date.
The conversations were recorded, enabling the experimenters to ask: What’s the best way to get someone to want to go out with you?
Men were a lot more likely to be interested in second dates than were women; they wanted such dates with 57 percent of their partners, as opposed to 38 percent for women. But for both men and women, asking follow-up questions was a strong predictor of whether people would want a second date.
Huang and her colleagues are the first to establish the importance of follow-up questions, but their findings are in line with many others. People who promote themselves, by bragging about their accomplishments, greatly underestimate how much their conversation partners will be annoyed (rather than happy for them).
Their efforts to impress others, and to win their affection, end up backfiring. So, too, people often fail to see that if your goal is to be liked, it’s often smart simply to agree with what other people have to say.
Sure, there are complications, for Thanksgiving and dating alike. Most people like to talk about themselves, which creates a trade-off: If you focus on someone else, you might not have as much fun, even if you’ll be better liked. And there are limits: If follow-up questions are too aggressive or too personal, they can be irritating and intrusive.
Importantly, Huang and her colleagues could not test the quality of follow-up questions. If your questions are insulting (“Why did you do something so idiotic??”), repetitive or routine (“And then what happened?”), or ridiculous (“Gosh, did you feel just like Spider Man?”), you might not make such a terrific impression.
But enough about that. Here’s what I’d really like to know: What was the best book you read last month? And what did you like about it?
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at firstname.lastname@example.org