We've all been there: You're eager to impress a new acquaintance but once you've gotten past the basic "What do you do?" intro questions, the conversation stalls. In the awkward silence your brain spins furiously trying to think of something to say.
Asking yourself "What should I say?" in these scenarios seems natural, but that's actually the completely wrong thing to focus on, according to fascinating new science from Harvard Business School doctoral student Karen Huang and collaborators.
If you're keen for people to like you, stop thinking about yourself and what you're doing, and focus more on listening and asking questions instead, her study found.
How actors break out of the anxiety-self-consciousness cycle
The design of the research was simple. Study subjects were either instructed to ask more than nine questions when text messaging with another study participant or told to ask no more than four. The partners then rated how much they liked each other. Participants overwhelmingly liked inquisitive partners a whole lot better.
As Melissa Dahl of Science of Us points out in her write-up of the findings, "it sounds like obvious advice, and it is, but that doesn't mean that people necessarily follow it. Research in social science has found many times over that people are generally pretty bad at guessing how to make a good first impression, and the most common mistakes can be grouped under a general 'me, me, me' category."
Performance anxiety, in other words, tends to drive us to focus intensely on our own presentation and behavior. This makes us less likable, which we usually pick up on, which makes us more anxious, and the cycle continues (at least until the person we're speaking to pretends to spot a friend across the room she needs to talk to).
Science has now confirmed that the way to break out of this anxiety-self-consciousness cycle is to pay a whole lot more attention to the other person and a lot less to yourself. Actors have known this for years.
"To varying degrees, humans are all self-conscious," writes Selina Wang of the lessons she learned in acting classes on HuffPost. In real life, this self-consciousness is simply a charisma killer, but on stage it results in bad acting, so actors long ago developed an effective technique for countering it.
"Actors can avoid this pitfall by shifting their concerns elsewhere. By responding to what I see and focusing on my partner's reactions, I forget that I am acting by placing all of my focus on the other person," explains Wang.
As Huang's research shows, this approach works in real life too. Wang agrees: "Whether we are pitching to a client in a meeting or persuading a friend, complete concentration on the other person and registering their response will always get us further than focusing on ourselves."
What kinds of questions are best?
This brings us to the other important and actionable finding of Huang's research. Her first series of experiments established that asking more questions makes you more likable (as a side note, other science shows it can also make you appear smarter), but that raises an obvious question -- what sort of questions should you be asking exactly?
"The very best questions to ask, the researchers further found, were follow-up questions, no doubt because these serve as evidence that you're listening," Dahl reports. That means that while having a stock of interesting icebreakers can lessen your initial anxiety going into a conversation, continuing to charm is more about listening carefully and tailoring your follow-up queries to what you hear.
So if you want to be a lot more charming with very little effort today, just remember this study (and the wisdom of actors). Next time you start a conversation, focus on the other person and try to maximize the number of thoughtful questions you ask. The more you manage, the greater the chance that person is going to like you. See, I told you it was simple.