Thursday 17 October 2019

Want to win friends and influence people? Here's the trick, according to researchers at Harvard University

Breathing Space

US actresses Courteney Cox (L) and Jennifer Aniston attends the 46th American Film Institute Life Achievement Award Gala at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood on June 7, 2018.
The American Film Institute (AFI) is honoring US actor George Clooney with the 46th AFI Life Achievement Award. / AFP PHOTO / VALERIE MACONVALERIE MACON/AFP/Getty Images
US actresses Courteney Cox (L) and Jennifer Aniston attends the 46th American Film Institute Life Achievement Award Gala at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood on June 7, 2018. The American Film Institute (AFI) is honoring US actor George Clooney with the 46th AFI Life Achievement Award. / AFP PHOTO / VALERIE MACONVALERIE MACON/AFP/Getty Images
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

Want to win friends and influence people? The trick, according to researchers at Harvard University, is to focus on the questions you ask, rather than the statements you make.

The study, which appeared in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology last year, concluded that "people who ask more questions, particularly follow-up questions, are better liked by their conversation partners".

This shouldn't come as a surprise. Some people prefer to open conversations with 'what?', 'how?' and 'why?' while others prefer to lead with statements starting with 'I'. And we all know which group we tend to gravitate towards...

But asking more, and better, questions doesn't just increase our likeability. It's a habit that builds relationships, cultivates creativity and, quite simply, increases our understanding of the world around us.

"Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question," wrote E. E. Cummings. But this isn't always immediately apparent. Just as we don't always grasp the importance of asking more questions, we don't always understand the benefits of asking better questions.

Good questions are designed to open up a conversation and get to the heart of the issue. Poorly constructed questions, on the other hand, act like a barrier to effective communication - they prevent a conversation from moving beyond perfunctory small-talk.

The late Peter Drucker - the so-called 'father of modern management' - prided himself on asking the right questions rather than providing the right answers.

"The most serious mistakes are not being made as a result of wrong answers," he said. "The true dangerous thing is asking the wrong question."

When Drucker was hired as a management consultant by blue-chip companies like Intel and Coca-Cola, he got straight to the point with five key questions that are still widely used today: "What is your mission? Who is your customer? What does your customer value? What results do you seek? What is your plan?"

Good leaders like Drucker are known for asking questions that resonate. Or to quote Warren Berger, author of A More Beautiful Question, they are "expert questioners".

"They're known to question the conventional wisdom of their industry, the fundamental practices of their company, even the validity of their own assumptions," he writes.

The way we frame questions is important too. Sometimes we ask what are known as 'tag questions' - "you're disappointed, aren't you?" / "it's wonderful, isn't it?". These questions don't invite a response; they subtly dictate it.

Likewise, there's a big difference between empowering and disempowering questions. The question, "Why haven't you met your targets?", for example, can put people on the defensive, whereas the more uplifting, but no less effective, question of "What can we do to help you meet your targets next month?" opens up the space for a conversation.

Dr Tasha Eurich takes this a step further in her book Insight. The organisational psychologist says 'why?' questions "trap us in our past" while 'what?' questions "help us create a better future". So next time you find yourself in a quandary, try asking yourself {what } you can learn from the situation instead of fixating on {why} you got into the situation in the first place.

The questions we ask ourselves are just as important as the questions we ask others. But again, they have to be framed correctly.

For instance, when stuck in a rut, you might try to kick-start momentum with a question like, "If not now then when?". That's a stirring question - there's no doubt about it - but some questions are so penetrating that they provoke panic rather than enlightenment.

In this scenario, a more targeted question will have much more impact. Take Dr Michael Bernard Beckwith's brilliant line of self-inquiry, for example.

"If this experience were to last forever, what quality would have to emerge for me to have peace of mind?"

If you're simply not the curious type, you could try taking the advice of Alison Wood Brooks, lead-author of the aforementioned Harvard University study. She says we should go into every conversation with the goal of asking five questions.

This is an especially good habit to teach children. Sure, the 'why?' stage of a child's development can be a little frustrating, but it's important to keep their curiosity piqued when they grow beyond this phase.

Good teachers will often use what's known as Socratic questioning in the classroom to draw out more from their students with questions like, "Why do you think that?" and "Could you give me an example?" Parents can try this technique to generate better conversations around the dinner table.

We spend a lot of time and energy looking for the right answers, but it's worth remembering that the solution sometimes lies in the question.

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