No Harm In Asking

From HBR on “The (Better Than Expected) Consequences of Asking Sensitive Questions”

We often shy away from subjects that could make others uncomfortable, such as money, lifestyle choices, and relationships. Is such circumspection really warranted, or are our conversational partners hardier than we think?

 Across five experiments, people overestimated the interpersonal costs of asking sensitive questions, potentially depriving themselves of useful information. In the first experiment, 360 participants were split into pairs, and one person was designated to ask the other five questions of a list. Some had sensitive questions to choose from (Have you ever cheated on a partner? What is your salary?), some had innocuous questions (Are you a morning person? What route do you take to work?), and some had a mix. After the conversations the respondents reported on their level of comfort and their impressions of the questioner, while questioners described how they thought the respondent felt and what impression they believed they had made.

 The questioners vastly overestimated respondents’ discomfort with sensitive questions and underestimated their own likability. Those who had a mix to choose from asked more innocuous questions, with 40% asking only one sensitive question or none at all. The more sensitive questions people had asked, the more uncomfortable they imagined their partners to be – though in reality, respondents’ comfort levels were unaffected by the number of sensitive questions they fielded.

 “Many individuals limit their conversations to topics such as the weather… and consequently miss valuable opportunities to gain information and potentially strengthen their relationships,” the researchers write. “We exhort individuals to go ahead and ask!”

I was delighted to discover years ago that effective selling is more about asking questions than being a smooth-talking salesperson (because smooth-talking I am not!) Asking better questions often means being willing to ask more sensitive or direct questions. Happily, you won’t have to ask them if they ever cheated on a partner or what their salary is but still, many opticians will tend to avoid vital questions like; How do you feel about the price? Where did you go last time? Why did you not go back? Who else gets a vote when you’re choosing your glasses? What would your wife think of these? Why did you not update your glasses last time? Do you really feel you need to change your glasses? And so on.

Sensitive questions are better questions because they get to the heart of the matter. They help the client think about their problem and arrive at a thoughtful, intelligent decision rather than a knee-jerk decision or no decision at all.

This research proves there is no harm in asking sensitive questions. People are happy to answer them. And you’re more likeable than you think. Rapport and likability are huge when it comes to asking effective questions and getting truthful, thoughtful answers. Keep practicing the Columbo Technique and the Eyewear Discovery Conversation for yourself and your team and your practice will get better and better.