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Source: Uber Images/Shutterstock

We spend much of our waking hours talking. A lot of conversation is about sharing information so we can influence each other and coordinate our behaviors. But we also use conversation to build and maintain social relationships. We make small talk to pass the time, we shoot the breeze with our buddies, we chat up prospective mates, and we sweet talk spouses and bosses. In other words, conversation does double duty in our lives, serving as a means for both information exchange and impression management.

In conversation, we tend to focus on the superficial aspects of information exchange. While our partner is speaking, we’re busy thinking of what to say next. After the conversation is over, we often have very little recall of the specific items that were discussed. (“We just talked about stuff.”) But what we do remember are the feelings the conversation aroused. (“We had such a wonderful time!”)

So how specifically do we use conversation to manage the impressions others have of us? And do people have good intuition about effective ways to get others to like them? These are the questions that Karen Huang and her Harvard colleagues asked in a recent set of experiments.

Take as an example the following situation: Two young adults, Andy and Angie, have just met. Andy finds Angie attractive and wants to make a good impression. How should he handle his end of the conversation to achieve this goal? Let’s consider three scenarios:

1. Andy wants Angie to think highly of him, so he talks about his accomplishments. He tells her about his job and his recent promotion, and he hints at his yearly salary. He talks about the new car that he bought, and the friends he plays soccer with. (He’s the captain of the team, of course.) At the end of the conversation, Angie knows a lot about Andy.

2. Andy doesn’t want to overwhelm Angie, so he keeps the conversation light. He asks standard questions, like “Where are you from?” and “What do you do?” After Angie replies, he gives his own response to the question. He also tosses in a couple of compliments to make her feel good. At the end of the conversation, they each know some basic information about each other.

3. Andy’s curious about Angie, so he asks lots of questions. He starts with a general question like “What do you do?” After Angie replies, he follows up with other questions, such as how long she’s worked there and whether she likes her job or not. When Angie asks him a question, he answers, but then he throws the question back to her. At the end of the conversation, Andy knows a lot more about Angie than she does about him.

If you were Andy, which approach would you take? Casual observation of conversational exchanges suggests that many men would take the first approach, especially if they’re trying to present themselves as an “alpha male.” Men who don't feel they can pull off the “alpha male” may strive for the “nice guy” impression instead — the second approach. (Of course, women use these approaches as well.)

Many people, though, are reluctant to take the third approach. They’re concerned that asking too many questions will come off as intrusive, or they worry that they might ask the wrong question and offend the other person. Anyway, it’s generally considered easier to talk about yourself than to think up appropriate questions for a partner.

Recent research on interpersonal attraction has focused on the idea of responsiveness — the set of verbal and nonverbal behaviors that address the needs of another person. When we feel a partner is responsive to our needs, we like that person more.

Responsiveness consists of three components:

  • Understanding — the accurate perception of the other’s feelings.
  • Validation — respect for the other’s point of view.
  • Care — the showing of affection and concern for the other.

According to Huang and colleagues, one conversational technique that covers all three components of responsiveness is question-asking. We can make guesses about other people’s feelings, but the only way to really understand is to ask. Further, the very act of asking questions implies validation for the other’s point of view. And especially when we ask follow-up questions, we demonstrate that we truly care about a partner.

To test the hypothesis that asking questions increases liking, the researchers paired participants together and had them exchange messages online. Partners A and B were told to keep the conversation going for a full 15 minutes, because they’d have to respond to a survey about the other person afterward. In half of the pairs, Partner A was further instructed to ask as many questions as possible, especially follow-up questions. After the conversation, Partner B was ask to rate how much they liked Partner A. (Note: The partners never met face to face.)

As expected, the people who asked lots of questions were rated as more likeable than were those who asked fewer questions. The researchers speculated that this was because the respondents interpreted question-asking as responsiveness. In the end, we all like talking about ourselves, and conversation partners who ask lots of questions fulfill our need to self-disclose. Ironically, those who were asked lots of questions knew less about their partners, but still liked them more.

The motivation for conducting these conversations online was so that there would be an enduring record for the researchers to study. They believed that question-asking elicited more liking because it was responsive to the partner’s emotional needs. However, it could be that people just interpret questions as friendlier than statements.

So the researchers asked another set of people to read the transcripts and rate how much they liked Partner A in each case. These neutral observers showed no preference for the high versus low question askers. Huang and colleagues speculate that this null result occurred because the question-asking wasn’t responsive to the personal needs of these objective observers. This finding also suggests that people are generally not aware that asking questions is an effective strategy in conversation for making a good impression.

Since online messaging is a very artificial format for a conversation, the researchers followed up with an experimental setup that had was more realistic — speed dating. As in the original experiments, the pairs were divided into high and low question-asking conditions. The researchers found that those who asked lots of questions were more likely to get a second date with their partners, compared with those who asked fewer questions.

If you want to make a good impression, the conversation strategy is clear: Instead of talking about yourself, get your partner to do the talking by asking follow-up questions. At the end of the interaction, they may know less factual information about you, but they’ll like you more because you’ve met their emotional needs. And when you meet the emotional needs of your partner, they’ll be more willing to meet yours.

References

Huang, K., Yeomans, M., Brooks, A. W., Minson, J., & Gino, F. (2017, April 27). It Doesn’t Hurt to Ask: Question-Asking Increases Liking. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000097

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