Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, February 1, 2021
I don’t mean to pry or be too personal, but tell me true how do you feel about sex, religion, politics, money, diversity and your ex-wife?
Those are what are called “sensitive questions.” In certain venues, you could get shot for asking them. But it turns out we should not be afraid to ask these questions, according to a new study, “The (Better Than Expected) Consequences of Asking Sensitive Questions,” authored by Einav Hart, Eric VanEpps and Maurice Schweitzer.
In any effective negotiation, it is important to ask questions. If the goal is to get to a yes, then you need to know where the damn goal posts are, otherwise you are flying blind and probably headed for an interception.
The authors make the point that mostly we use communication “to achieve some ulterior goal” or to shape the narrative. We seldom just ask an open question, without a bias or an agenda. They want us to learn how to ask “questions that would be most useful to us.” For example, “Darling, have you been having an affair?” is a sensitive question, especially if your wife is holding a frying pan. But the answer would only be useful if you were hoping to save your marriage and avoid a divorce.
In fairness to the authors, they do go on to point out that “context” is critical. But in the effort to create true communication, they are definitely on the side of poking the bear, hoping that your ration of bear spray will be adequate to calm the potential response.
They go on to argue that if you asked a sensitive question of a co-worker and received the answer in an empathetic and caring way, then armed with that knowledge, you would be a more effective co-worker yourself.
On a personal note, I am not sure I want to know how you feel about Trump or BLM or SDG&E. There is a school of thought that says, shut up and just do the work. But the trio argue that by doing that we miss out on the potential richness of a relationship.
“We avoid asking sincere questions because we fear harming those very relationships.” I agree with that, but one needs to assess the risk/reward component. Will the answer enrich our relationship or will the guy walk out of the room with the deal I wanted badly gone forever, not to mention that he keyed my car on the way out of the parking lot.
The authors say that “sensitive questions demonstrate our concern for others, as well as they signal benevolence and caring.” Their study is timely given that on social media, where we share everything, including what we had for dinner last night, it is also true that we mostly only share surfaces. The hard stuff stays hidden — and then when or if it is revealed, you run the risk of being called out and shamed on the very social media you used to share it.
In any conversation, the opening gambit invites a return response that will further humanize our communication. “I flew private to the Bahamas this weekend, what did you do?”
The authors also explore “impression management,” which essentially means that we want other people to think positively of us. We want to make a good impression, and the authors find that “people consistently err too far on the side of politeness.” It turns out that my asking you about your salary is not as offensive as I thought it would be. The fact that I earn three times what you earn does make it a bit easier.
On the personal front, I do some CEO coaching and I assure you my questions are on point, in your face and not overly sensitive, but it is proven that is the only way to bring about change. The question the authors do not address well is the “why” are you asking. What is the goal of the sensitive question?
The trio’s study has one clear finding — “We overestimate the relationship cost of asking sensitive questions.”
But if you think, “wow, are you pregnant or did you just gain 25 pounds?” is a sensitive question that will cost you nothing in the relationship — well, keep your eye peeled for that frying pan.
Rule No. 693: “TMI”– Joe Checkler, Wall Street Journal