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Can Asking Specific Questions Deepen Any Relationship?

Intimacy arises in specific kinds of conversations; the questions can vary.

Back in 2015, an essay went viral that described 36 questions used in a psychology experiment that brought people emotionally close (or to quote the article, made them “fall in love”). Even now, I still see articles come out that portray these specific questions—as they are used in new studies—as nearly magical keys to meaningful emotional connection.

Reporting about the 36 questions offers sensational headlines. But these stories generally focus on the use of the specific questions themselves to cultivate closeness—and this misses the point of why researchers have people ask each other particular questions when running experiments on human interactions.

The effect of closeness from two people asking each other a series of questions in these experiments is the result of the type of conversation that the order of these questions are intended to create—a conversation that becomes increasingly deep and vulnerable. The questions are standardized so the experiment is the same for everyone who participates (and is selected for the experimental condition rather than the control condition).

What to Take Away From The 36 Questions

We can learn so much about how we cultivate emotional intimacy in relationships from studies like the one in which the 36 questions were developed—that focus on the process by which people interact to generate closeness.

Emotional intimacy occurs when people open up about their innermost selves and communicate to one another understanding, validation, and care (what researchers call responsiveness) in response. By sharing deeply, we gain special access to parts of one another’s mind that not everyone sees, thus allowing us to feel close. By responding thoughtfully to the vulnerability of each other's disclosures, we each show that we can be trusted.

What the order of the 36 questions does is allow people the opportunity to open up to each other at increasingly vulnerable levels and, ideally, be responsive to one another.

This process is also not the only way to cultivate closeness in social interactions. For example supporting others in ways that feel effective to them, expressing gratitude, or celebrating each other's good news, are just a few research-supported ways to bond, and build trust and closeness.

How to Apply Research on Emotional Intimacy to Your Own Interactions

I encourage you to take away from the 36 questions phenomenon the overall progression of the questions—from questions that require just a tiny bit of potential vulnerability, to those that require a bit more personal disclosure, to those that (if the conversation is going well!) get quite personal and vulnerable—rather than enlisting the specific questions themselves in your conversations.

Ask questions that open others up appropriately to how well you know them and the space you are in. Is this a work friend in the office? Is this a first date out for coffee? Is this a phone call with a sibling you hope to have a deeper relationship with? Then, go deeper from there if they reciprocate along that line of discussion.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have fun with the 36 questions or any spin-offs that create a structured or game-like way to dig deep into emotionally intimate territory. If you find the 36 questions useful, use them!

But know that you aren’t missing any magic words to bring about closeness. Opportunities abound in conversation to follow up and ask people about their personal experiences, and to listen and respond with care. It takes time, trial and error, and digging deeper at a shared speed and around topics that work for you and the person you are connecting with.

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