Even under the best circumstances, work relationships tend to involve a certain level of awkwardness. Spending 40+ hours a week with a group of people under (somewhat) forced conditions can easily result in tensions, poor communication, and even conflicts. On a less dramatic scale, it’s challenging to maintain a warm and friendly workplace-social rapport with people you may not choose to hang out with on your own time (a common occurrence among colleagues, unless you’re very lucky!).
If you find yourself blanking on conversation-starters during a company retreat, can’t think of what to say to a coworker when you end up behind her in line at the downstairs coffee shop, or need a good jumping-off point for a introductory chat with a new hire, there’s one easy way to forge a connection and begin setting up the building blocks of camaraderie: just ask questions.
The Cut did a bit of investigative reporting on the “how to make people like you” matter, and they discovered that an egocentric approach - one in which you talk about yourself rather than try to find out about the other person - doesn’t typically yield the results you want. If this sounds like you, don’t feel bad; according to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, many people begin interactions this way, often out of a lack of anything else to say: “[M]ost people spend the majority of their conversations sharing their own views rather than focusing on the other person.”
Melissa Dahl of The Cut explains the fallout of this instinct without mincing any words. Basically, she says, “no one is as interested in you as you are”. So if your goal involves finding common ground with a coworker and generally improving their impression of you, it makes sense to turn the conversation to a topic that they as humans are inherently invested in: themselves.
As it turns out, there’s data to back this up. Harvard Business School doctoral candidate Karen Huang gathered a group of test participants and assigned them a set of questions to ask each other in the flow of conversation. Some assignees received a list of 9 questions, while others received only 4. When Huang surveyed the group to find out which members came across as most likable, the ones who asked 9 questions won out every time.
But if you’re in a work setting, what kinds of questions should you ask your colleagues? Huang and her team of researchers observed particularly positive reactions to follow-up questions. “People like being heard,” Dahl noted, and we think that advice definitely applies to the workplace. So if your coworker fills you in on a job-related problem, ask her questions that directly reference the information she just provided. She’ll appreciate the responsiveness, and you won’t have to worry about being stumped for convo starters. It’s a win-win!