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Conversation is fundamental to all human interaction (networking included, of course). We’ve all met people who tell you all about themselves in response to your questions but never return the compliment by asking about you. Not your favourite person, I’m sure.

In business, as in everyday social encounters. Intuitively, we may know that people who don’t ask questions, who don’t actively engage with us are less likeable than those who do. Now I’ve come across some recent research with confirms this. In a nutshell, the authors (five Harvard academics) found that “people who ask more questions, particularly follow-up questions, are better liked by their conversation partners”. This seems, to me at least, pretty obvious. But clearly that’s not the case for everybody since the researchers also found that “despite the persistent and beneficial effects of asking questions, people do not anticipate that question-asking increases interpersonal liking.”

In more detail, the authors suggest that there are two main goals of any conversation: information exchange and impression management. In both cases, their rigorous academic studies found that asking questions influences both, positively.

But a couple of words of caution. Firstly, this positive impact excludes people who fire questions at you in order (consciously or unconsciously) to avoid revealing anything about themselves. To keep the ball rolling, we need to both ask and answer questions, show and interest and reveal something of ourselves. Or, as I often say in workshops, be both interested and interesting.

Finally, a personal anecdote, which demonstrates that asking the right (or at least not the wrong) question is important. While at business school, I was turned down for a job with a management consultancy. When I asked for some feedback, I was told that I was doing really well until I asked what hours I would be expected to work. As far as they were concerned, they were looking for total dedication. I wasn’t prepared to offer that, so maybe ‘all’s well that ends well’. I wouldn’t have fit in well with that work culture, and they gathered that from the question I asked.

You can find a summary of the research is here. A PDF of the full paper is here