Here’s What Makes You Likable (and why it matters for business)

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What makes you likable is really incredibly simple. Science has just proved it.

Before I tell you, do you care to take a guess what it is? Perhaps think of the people who you genuinely look forward to seeing, the ones you really connect with. What makes them different? What makes conversations with them so special?

A recent study at Harvard found that the simple act of asking questions is one of the most important aspects of trusted and open relationships, higher emotional intelligence, and learning. So simple, right?

Think again on the conversations you have with close friends, advisors, confidants, your “inner circle”. Before long, I’ll bet you’ll realize that good questions are at the center of your conversations — and not just from them. Given their communication style, you’re also more likely to ask questions of them without reservation, and that brings you to an entirely different level of authenticity and idea sharing. Your chemistry is “just right”, and that’s what makes the relationship to special. Incidentally, that chemistry is also what’s at the heart of the Harvard Study.

Questioning like a pro

Unless you’re a lawyer, an investigative reporter, or a detective, you likely weren’t taught how to ask questions. Me neither. So, what it is about some people that makes them so good at it?

Good questioners naturally shift the focus of any conversation onto the other person. In doing so, they build a rapport and transparency that begins the process of creating a long-term (and, in the case of business, effective) relationship.

Okay, that’s not shocking; we all understand that showing interest in another person reveals we want to better know them. Yet, how we best ask those good questions is what we need to uncover. Harvard researchers present the following guidelines for asking questions that form a solid foundation of bonding, trust, empathy, and transparency — key ingredients in any personal or business relationship.

1. Favor follow-up questions.

According to Harvard, there are four types of questions:

  • introductory questions (“How are you?”)
  • mirror questions (“I’m fine. How are you?”)
  • full-switch questions (ones that change the topic entirely), and
  • follow-up questions (ones that solicit more information)

Ask them all when it’s appropriate, but focus especially on the follow-up questions (that last bullet item) because they signal a genuine interest in the person you are talking to. Remember, most people answer (all) questions in such a way that they leave the door open for a follow-up. They want to reveal more information about themselves, but they don’t know how when you stick to the basics. So, don’t just follow an agenda of pre-scripted questions. You’re not conducting an inquisition! Follow-up their one or two word answers with questions that solicit more details about their life and situation.

2. Beware of closed-ended questions.

Lawyers questioning witnesses rely on closed-ended (yes/no) questions because they subtly drive the witness (and jury) to an anticipated conclusion. Closed-ended questions are effective on the witness stand because they’re more prone to bias and can better manipulate a narrative. They can often be intimidating.

Now, do you want to question your friends and clients this way?

In general, open-ended questions are better than the simple yes/no or multiple choice questions because they result in richer, more revealing answers. What’s more, they better eliminate bias and that sense of manipulation. So, favor the open-ended questions, and don’t move away from what appears to be a dead end if the person answers with a simple yes or no. Try to get more. “Can you tell me why you answered the way you did?”

3. Order your questions correctly.

Perhaps the most interesting finding of the study was that the order of questions asked has a significant effect on how a person will respond. For example, if your goal is to just gain insight and get information, and you don’t care about a long-term relationship (think of that investigative reporter just looking for details), then starting with the toughest or most invasive question. The rest of the questions will seem less invasive and elicit the responses you want.

Of course, the opposite is true when it comes to relationship building. Intimacy, trust, and transparency take work, and we need to build up to them. The researchers use the example of the work behind a viral NY Times article about the 36 questions that would make two people fall in love — starting with relatively shallow inquiries and progressing to more revealing ones. In the study, couples who followed the prescribed structure liked each other more than ones who didn’t. In other words, the order of questions asked matters.

4. Watch your tone.

Your mother told you a thousand times, and now science proves she was right! Of all the things we do to help open up or shut down a conversation, tone is among the most critical. Harvard research concludes that people are more forthcoming when you “ask questions in a casual way, rather than in a buttoned-up, official tone.”

Note that this applies to all sorts of communication, even online questions and surveys. The research details an online survey in which some study participants used a very conservative and official-looking survey page while other participants used a fun and playful page. According to the research, “Participants were about twice as likely to reveal sensitive information on the casual-looking site than on the others.” Consider that the next time you survey clients. Don’t make a joke of your survey, but don’t go overboard on formality either.

5. Pay attention to group dynamics.

You won’t always ask questions one-on-one, so be aware of the power of group dynamics when surveying more than one person. When a group is involved — even just a few people — the responses will necessarily be influenced by that group. How they answer questions, if respondents will be “open” or “closed-off”, and so on will be impacted. It’s not bad to ask questions in a group setting. Just be aware that your responses may be skewed.

The research also delves into what makes answers to questions meaningful and productive in furthering a sense of equity, bonding, and sharing. The bottom line seems to be that you need to strive for balanced transparency and sharing. An imbalance, one way or the other, can tilt the conversation and create discomfort or skepticism as to the motives of the questioner.

All in all, this isn’t shocking or overly-complicated information. Still, I suspect we all can make some improvements in what we’re asking, how we’re asking, and how well we follow these guidelines.   With our personal and business relationships on the line, we have some work to do in improving our questioning skills to become more likable.

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About Rachel Coughtry

Comments

  1. Excellent article, Rachel!

  2. good article!

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