While our partner is speaking, we’re busy thinking of what to say next. After the conversation is over, we often have very little recall of the specific items that were discussed. (“We just talked about stuff.”) But what we do remember are the feelings the conversation aroused. (“We had such a wonderful time!”)
Take as an example the following situation. Two young adults, Andy and Angie, have just met. Andy finds Angie attractive and wants to make a good impression. How should he handle his end of the conversation to achieve this goal? Let’s consider three scenarios.
- Andy wants Angie to think highly of him, so he talks about his accomplishments. He tells her about his job and his recent promotion, and he hints at his yearly salary. He talks about the new car that he bought, and the friends he plays soccer with. (He’s the captain of the team, of course.) At the end of the conversation, Angie knows a lot about Andy.
- Andy doesn’t want to overwhelm Angie, so he keeps the conversation light. He asks standard questions, like “Where are you from?” and “What do you do?” After Angie replies, he gives his own response to the question. He also tosses in a couple of compliments to make her feel good. At the end of the conversation, they each know some basic information about each other.
- Andy’s curious about Angie, so he asks lots of questions. He starts with a general question like “What do you do?” After Angie replies, he follows up with other questions, such as how long she’s worked there and whether she likes her job or not. When Angie asks him a question, he answers, but then he throws the question back to her. At the end of the conversation, Andy knows a lot more about Angie than she does about him.
If you were Andy, which approach would you take? Casual observation of conversational exchanges suggests that many men will take the first approach, especially if they’re trying to present themselves as an “alpha male.” Men who know they can’t pull off the “alpha male” will often strive for the “nice guy” impression instead. This is the second approach. (Of course, women use these approaches as well.)
Many people, though, are reluctant to take the third approach. They’re concerned that asking too many questions will come off as intrusive. Or else they worry that they might ask the wrong question and offend the other person. Anyway, it’s generally easier to talk about yourself than to think up appropriate questions to ask your partner.
Recent research on interpersonal attraction has focused on the idea of responsiveness. In easy words, when we feel our partner is responsive to our needs, we like that person more.
Responsiveness consists of three components:
- Understanding, or the accurate perception of the other’s feelings.
- Validation, or respect for the other’s point of view.
- Care, or the showing of affection and concern for the other.
According to Huang and colleagues, one conversational technique that covers all three components of responsiveness is question-asking. We can make guesses about other people’s feelings, but the only way to really understand is to ask. Furthermore, the very act of asking questions implies validation for the other’s point of view. And especially when we ask follow-up questions, we demonstrate that we truly care about our partner.
As expected, the people who asked lots of questions were rated as more likeable than were those who asked fewer questions. The researchers speculated that this was because the respondents interpreted question-asking as responsiveness. In the end, we all like talking about ourselves, and conversation partners who ask lots of questions fulfill our need to self-disclose. Ironically, those who were asked lots of questions knew less about their partners, but still they liked them more!
If you want to make a good impression, the conversation strategy is clear. Instead of talking about yourself, get your partner to do the talking by asking follow-up questions. At the end of the interaction, they may know less factual information about you, but they’ll like you more because you’ve met their emotional needs. And when you meet the emotional needs of your partner, they’ll be more willing to meet yours.