Influence: Everybody wants more of it, few understand it. Because being influential is something you embody. It comes across in the way you carry yourself in different situations and how you interact with others. Most of all, it’s about how you make people feel when they’re around you. And it translates into the results you get in your career and life.
But while boosting your influence cannot be reduced to following instructions mechanically, learning a few ground rules will help you get to practice until the day you feel it’s a concept you’ve truly embodied.
And, according to a Harvard study, asking a lot of questions, including follow-up ones, makes you instantly more likable — a key factor to becoming more influential.
“When people are instructed to ask more questions, they are perceived as higher in responsiveness, an interpersonal construct that captures listening, understanding, validation, and care,” concluded the researchers behind the project, which zoomed in on the understudied science of conversational behavior.
It turns out that most people miss out on a huge opportunity to build rapport and be perceived favorably when having a conversation. How? By sharing information about themselves. And you, knowing this, can now have more influential conversations while still remaining genuine, turning the focus on your interlocutor and avoiding the common tendency to talk about yourself too much.
So asking more questions in conversations is a great, immediate goal. But not every question is made equal. The Harvard researchers classified different types of questions while studying participants in a speed dating scenario and it turns out that one of the types was most effective for increasing likeability.
Here are the six types of questions you can ask to be engaging in any conversation — and supercharge your influence and likeability in the process. Some of these were used too rarely to be included in the study’s conclusions, but knowing about them will support your conversational arsenal nonetheless.
“Follow-up questions were those that followed up on the topic the partner had mentioned earlier in the conversation (almost always in the previous turn),” wrote the scientists.
Classic follow-up questions are the most effective in terms of being more likable and influential, and you’ll want to use them often.
Why? Because, in order to ask a follow-up question, you need to understand what the other person said. This demonstrates active listening and interest. “They are particularly likely to increase liking because they require responsiveness from the question-asker, and signal responsiveness to the question-asker’s partner.”
Example: “I’m planning a trip to Canada.” “Oh, cool. Have you ever been there before?”
2. Full switch
Full switch questions are follow-ups where you ask about a new topic unrelated to the topic the other person has discussed. It’s something you might want to start being aware of in conversations, as you can risk appearing uninterested by completely changing the topic in response to an interlocutor’s statement.
Example: “I am working at a dry cleaner.” “What do you like doing for fun?”
3. Partial switch
Partial switch questions blend the two types of questions above. They change the topic somewhat, but not entirely. This form of response can come in handy if you have nothing valuable or authentic to say, but you still want to give a cue that you are intently listening and keep the convo going.
Example: “Not super outdoorsy, but not opposed to a hike or something once in a while.” “Have you been to the beach much in Boston?”
In a mirror question, you answer a question, then bounce it back to your interlocutor. It is slightly different from a follow-up question, but the difference is subtle: Mirror questions are always preceded by a question, whereas follow-up questions are preceded by a statement.
Sounds complicated? It’s actually something so common you might not realize you do it all the time. It’s not the most original form of follow-up questions, but it will do if you find yourself stuck.
Example: “What did you have for breakfast?” “I had eggs and fruit. How about you?”
“Rhetorical questions were defined as questions where one does not expect a response from the partner; these speech acts take the grammatical form of a question but are used to make a point rather than elicit information,” wrote the researchers.
The risk with rhetorical questions is appearing self-centered, as they’re not questions based on finding out more or showcasing active listening but sharing information. They can be great for hooking your audience into a topic — they might just not be the most effective at increasing likeability.
Example: “What’s the craziest event you’ve been to? Yesterday I followed a marching band around. Where were they going? It’s a mystery.”
Introductory questions are the most superficial, routine questions at the beginning of a conversation. It’s whatever you say to kick things off when someone greets you.
While the quality of your introductory questions can help you start a conversation on the right foot — and first impressions do matter — it won’t impact your influence as much as other forms of questions (unless you put your foot in your mouth and manage to ruin the interaction before it even starts).
Example: “Hello!” “Hey, how’s it going?”