How do we make a favorable first impression in a conversation? Sometimes, we think getting noticed at a networking event means getting the last word or talking up our accomplishments.
But new research has found that to be remembered as likable in a conversation, you need to make the conversation engaging.
And that means not making it all about you. In fact, not at all.
A recent Harvard study found that people who asked questions were seen as more likable than people who spent time hogging the conversation and holding forth in a monologue.
“Whereas prior data demonstrate that people tend to talk about themselves, our results suggest this may not be an optimal strategy,” researchers in the study wrote. “We identify follow-up questions as an important behavioral indicator of responsiveness, and we find that asking a higher rate of follow-up questions reliably predicts partner liking.”
We like people who ask questions
Our self-defeating instincts tell us to keep talking about our opinions, but the research found that the people who stopped to listen and follow-up were the real winners of the conversation.
In one of the studies, the Harvard researchers got 430 participants to talk to each other one-on-one in instant messaging conversations. In each of the pairs, one of the participants was instructed to ask “at least nine questions” or “at most four questions” under the guise of getting to know one another. At the end of the 15-minute conversation, the question-responders rated the people who asked more questions as more responsive, and therefore, more likable than the conversation partners who asker fewer questions.
Asking more questions works because it forces us to pay attention to our conversation partners and remain present. It shows that we’re curious, empathetic, and interested in the lives of others. “Follow-up questions are particularly likely to increase liking because they require responsiveness from the question-asker, and signal responsiveness to the question-asker’s partner,” researchers wrote.
Interestingly, though, these findings change when you add an observer. In a separate study, researchers got participants to read the transcripts of 169 one-on-one conversations, and these third-party observers rated the people who asked fewer questions higher than the people who asked more questions. Researchers suggested that this is because follow-up questions matter more to the person in the conversation than to someone reading a transcript. In other words, you had to be there.
“Because a third-party observer is not present in the conversation by definition, none of the questions being asked can follow up on anything they have said,” researchers said. “These results provide converging evidence that people like question-askers because they perceive question-askers as more responsive (to them personally).”
Too many of us have tunnel vision and don’t realize that a conversation’s a two-way street. The Harvard study was drawing upon prior research that found that we like doctors who ask follow-up questions about their patients’ experience more than ones who don’t. And in our personal lives, research has found that we are drawn to people who ask us questions about ourselves on our dates more than people who monologue about their accomplishments and success.
“Although most people do not anticipate the benefits of question-asking and do not ask enough questions, people would do well to learn that it doesn’t hurt to ask,” researchers concluded. Next time you’re in a conversation, don’t just talk—ask.