Making a great first impression is so much better than having to overcome a bad first impression. But it's easier said than done. Big first impressions come from small talk done well--something most of us struggle with. We end up defaulting to highly generic and ineffective tropes like "What do you do?", "Nice weather we're having, no?", "Traffic is ridiculous, huh?", or "How 'bout them Dallas Cowboys?!"

There's a better way, one informed by an odd duo: Harvard research and speed-daters (and confirmed by my own experience).

A 2017 study by a team of Harvard psychology researchers says we're screwing up small talk. Too many think quickly focusing the conversation on themselves and sharing impressive self-stories is how it's done. But it rarely works. As the researchers put it: "Redirecting the topic of conversation to oneself, bragging, boasting, or dominating the conversation tends to decrease liking."

So what to do instead? Ask more questions.

The researchers said that surprisingly, people do not think that more question-asking leads to them being liked more--but it does.

Here's the study's conclusion in the words of lead researcher Francesca Gino and her team:

People spend most of their time talking about their own viewpoints and tend to self-promote when meeting people for the first time. In contrast, high question-askers--those that probe for information from others--are perceived as more responsive and are better liked. Responsiveness reflects three components: understanding, validation, and care for the partner.

The Harvard team studied successful speed daters and found that "speed daters who ask more questions during their dates are more likely to elicit agreement for second dates, a behavioral indicator of liking."

Makes sense--if my first date showed responsiveness through question-asking and showed that she understood me, validated me, and cared, I'd be far more likely to ask for a follow-up dinner and movie.  

The findings directly apply to non-romantic first encounters. It's all about asking questions to show your interest in the other, and then, and this is critical, asking follow-up questions.

How to Keep Your AIM True in That First Encounter

Authenticity--Relax and be yourself. Imagine you're catching up with an old friend. This is especially helpful if you're meeting someone particularly important or intimidating.  

Interest--show yours. Our fellow human beings are fascinating. What would genuinely be interesting to learn about the other? Set aside the pressures of having to make a good first impression or what may be at stake with this encounter. Let your guard down and interested.

Make the effort to listen--What's the point in asking questions if you're not going to listen to the answers, and respond to them?

I use this acronym so much that I don't even think about it anymore. Anyone who regularly interacts with me knows that I'd much rather ask questions about the other than talk about myself. I'm genuinely interested in my fellow human being, and if I'm being honest, it keeps me from having to talk about myself, which I really don't like doing.

That said, it's important be balanced. People have told me that when we get together I've skillfully focused the entire conversation on them and they walk away having learned nothing about how I'm doing (and they really want to know).

So, ask more questions in general, especially when trying to make great first impressions, but as you get to know the person, share too.

Some Questions to Ask

The point of question-asking is to "encourage the partner to elaborate on their beliefs, thoughts, and emotions", according to the researchers. So here's a few starter-questions (remembering the key is to then ask follow-up questions):

  • "What do you value most in a friendship?"
  • "What's your most treasured memory?"
  • "What's your current state of mind?"
  • "What are you looking forward to this week?"
  • "What's your proudest accomplishment, and why?"

According to Gary Burnison, the CEO of Korn Ferry (a firm that helps companies select/hire top talent) you can also simply be in the moment and react to your surroundings for conversation fodder.

For example, maybe you notice something interesting in their office, like a piece of art, a gadget on their desk, or an interesting family photo. Inquire.  

Burnison also says it's not all about what you say. Be mindful of your tone of voice (smile even when you're on the phone), your facial expressions, and eye contact. The Harvard researchers agree, adding that mirroring the other person's mannerisms and affirming the other's statements add to your likeability.

Net, successful small talk and great first impressions start first by asking questions. So ask, and ye shall receive.