By Megan Winkeler

What if I told you there was one thing you could do to make people like you, build stronger relationships, and get more of what you want out of negotiations? It sounds too good to be true, but recent research points to one action you can take to help you achieve all of these goals: asking questions.

Researchers at Harvard Business School conducted a study observing natural conversations, and they found “a robust and consistent relationship between question-asking and liking.” When the people observed in the study asked more questions during conversations, their conversation partners perceived the listeners to be more responsive. That perception made the conversation partner feel heard, understood, cared about, and validated.

Asking questions, particularly during negotiations or difficult conversations, has myriad other positive effects:

Given the benefits of asking questions, why doesn’t everyone do it more often? Research suggests that people systematically underestimate how much others like them after conversations, and this liking gap causes people to focus too much on their own behavior rather than the person sitting across from them. Luckily, this research also found that simply asking questions is the most important and impactful way to increase how much people like you.

So how can you change your habits and harness the power of asking questions in your conversations and negotiations? Try the following advice:

    • Listen for interests: Interests – people’s goals, wants, concerns, fears, and needs – define what matters most to people. Listening carefully to identify the speaker’s interests will guide you to ask about the things the speaker truly care about, allowing you to ask more engaging and on-point questions.
    • Focus on follow-up questions: The Harvard Business School study cited above identified 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). Of all these question types, follow-up questions packed the most power because they showed that the person was listening, understood what mattered to the speaker, and cared enough to ask them to continue speaking on the topic.
    • Get them talking: Ultimately, the power of asking questions comes providing the speaker with an opportunity to say more about themselves and things they care about. For this reason, open-ended questions are more effective than a string of “yes-or-no” questions. Your goal is to ask questions that give the speaker the floor to provide more detail and shape the conversation. Simple questions such as “What else?” and “Why is that?” are highly effective, as well as a simple statements such as “I’d love to hear more about that.”
  • Try active listening: We have written about the utility of active listening on this blog in the past. Active listeners first summarize what they heard the speaker say to confirm understanding, focusing on the speaker’s interests in particular. Then, they ask an open-ended follow-up question. For anyone working to ask more questions, this tool is particularly useful because it provides structure and makes follow-up questions feel more natural.

If you struggle to ask questions during conversations or negotiations, don’t fret. Research shows that active listening and question-asking are skills that can be improved. Investing in skills training, such as negotiation or mediation workshops, combined with practice can help you improve your ability to consistently ask good follow-up questions. You can also build your awareness of your current conversation style to see how often you ask questions and where you can improve the most. In MWI’s trainings, we like to share a simple adage for thinking about the power of asking questions:  you have two ears and one mouth; use them proportionally.

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Interested in improving your ability to ask effective questions or helping your team improve their skills? Consider attending or organizing a training with MWI. Explore our negotiation and mediation training options, or contact Megan Winkeler directly at 617-895-4032 or mwinkeler@mwi.org to learn how we can help you achieve your specific goals.

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