New research suggests that people who ask questions, particularly follow-up questions, may become better managers, land better jobs, and even win second dates.
“Compared to those who do not ask many questions, people who do are better liked and learn more information from their conversation partners,” says Alison Wood Brooks, assistant professor and Hellman Faculty Fellow at Harvard Business School. “This strategy does both. It’s an easy-to-deploy strategy anyone can use to not only be perceived as more emotionally intelligent, but to actually be more emotionally intelligent as well.”
The research, published in the paper It Doesn’t Hurt to Ask: Question-Asking Increases Liking, examined data from online chats and face-to-face speed dating conversations. In addition to Brooks, the coauthors were Karen Huang, HBS and Department of Psychology, Harvard University; Michael Yeomans, Institute for Quantitative Social Science, Harvard University; Julia Minson, Harvard Kennedy School; and Francesca Gino, Harvard Business School. It was published in September’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
The first two studies in the paper examined more than 600 online chat participants tasked with getting to know each other. A third study consisted of 110 speed-daters engaged in round-robin dates—over 2,000 conversations.
In all three studies, those who asked follow-up questions were better liked than those who didn’t. “Follow-up questions are an easy and effective way to keep the conversation going and show that the asker has paid attention to what their partner has said,” the researchers write.
Researchers study 2,000 conversations
In the first two studies, people were assigned a random partner and told to chat for 15 minutes in order to get to know each other. In the first study, one person in each pair was told to ask at least nine questions or at most four questions, and the other person was unaware of his or her partner’s question-asking instructions. In the next study, both people in each pair were told to ask many (at least nine) or few (at most four) questions.
Nine research assistants read through a sample of 368 transcripts and identified question types. They discovered and hand-labeled six different types of questions: introductory, mirror, full-switch, partial-switch, follow-up, and rhetorical questions. Forty-four percent of the questions—more than any other type—were follow-ups.
Based on the hand-labeled question types, the research team was able to create its own machine learning algorithm, natural-language-processing software to analyze the speed dating conversations. For the third study, armed with their algorithm, they examined data from a 2013 Stanford speed dating study called Detecting friendly, flirtatious, awkward and assertive speech in speed dates as a way to test in-person interaction.
And there, perhaps, was revealed the ultimate proof that follow-up questions work. The top third of question askers got the most second dates. Researchers found that if a participant were to ask just one more question on each of the 20 dates, he or she would succeed in getting a “yes I want to see you again” on one more of the dates, on average.
Be careful, though. Asking too many questions can have the reverse effect, the research shows. “Asking a barrage of questions without disclosing information about yourself may come across as guarded, or worse, invasive,” Brooks says.
Brooks, who has been fascinated by “why people don’t ask more questions” since grade school, has mulled over this topic in many discussions with her mother, whom she thanks in the study. “My mom, a talented natural psychologist, and I would often reflect on why people don’t ask more questions. What holds them back?”
One reason might be ego. People may be so focused on sharing what they know that they aren’t considering what they might learn from others. Or, they may think to ask a question, but are afraid of asking one that is perceived as rude, intrusive, or incompetent.
But, there’s a third, darker reason. Potential questioners, such as a manager, may not ask because they don’t care about the answers—they may feel apathy or disinterest in what the other person has to say.
“This type of apathy is often misplaced—we have much to learn from others, perhaps especially from those lower in status than ourselves,” Brooks says.
“Every workplace has norms and rules of conduct, explicit and implicit. There are rules of appropriateness. And rules of professionalism,” Brooks says. “It is possible that we are more likely to make conversational mistakes at work and violate these rules and norms and expectations.”
A job interview is one circumstance that may benefit from asking more questions. For example, standard practice suggests that a potential new boss is expected to do the asking. But asking more questions as a job candidate may show how much you can contribute in a potential job, that you are an engaging listener with high emotional intelligence. Plus, the manager may like you more.
“We don’t have many evidence-based prescriptions about what you can do to become more emotionally intelligent or to take other people’s perspectives,” Brooks says. “In fact, there’s research that shows even if you tell people, ‘try to put yourself in other person’s shoes,’ we aren’t very good at it.”
The right way to question
For those who aren’t natural question-askers, Brooks recommends heading into any conversation with an explicit goal of asking questions.
“Think to yourself, I need to ask at least five questions in this conversation, or, I need to ask questions in this conversation, listen to the answers, and ask follow-up questions. It’s easy to do, and—even better—requires almost no preparation.”
The researchers are interested in looking at other areas, now that they’ve established a link between question-asking and liking.
Potential areas include: What happens in extreme situations when someone asks zero questions, or, when they ask 50? What can be gleaned about gender, status, age, or personality from question-asking in conversation? What can be learned from groups in terms of productivity or happiness when it comes to question asking?