Research shows that people assume asking sensitive questions about salary, relationship status, or other personal topics is likely to make their conversation partner feel uncomfortable and worsen their relationship. But in fact, that’s often not the case. Most respondents report a similar comfort level and impression of the question-asker regardless of whether they asked sensitive questions or mundane ones, and sometimes, asking these more personal questions can actually improve relationships. In this piece, the authors describe a series of experiments that explored this phenomenon, followed by several suggestions for how leaders can foster a workplace culture that encourages people to engage in these sensitive conversations in a healthy, productive manner.
“How much money do you make?”
We often avoid asking questions that feel too sensitive or personal. But avoiding these potentially awkward conversations comes at a cost: When negotiating a salary or choosing where to live, for example, it can be very useful to know how much a coworker earns or how much a friend pays in rent. Learning more about our peers’ circumstances can help us navigate our own professional and social interactions, and asking direct (albeit potentially uncomfortable) questions is one of the most effective ways to access this valuable information. Plus, these questions can sometimes strengthen relationships, as they can help us go beyond small talk and spark real connection. So how do we strike the right balance between seeking useful information and minimizing the discomfort we cause others (or even the risk of alienating them)?
Our recent research shows that, on average, people err too far on the side of politeness. In our studies, we found that people generally avoided asking sensitive questions out of fear that they would offend their conversation partners — but when they actually did ask these questions, most people were far less offended than their partners had expected them to be. Of course, this pattern may depend on the context, the culture, and the specific people involved. But we found these results held across all of our studies, in which we did our best to mimic real-world conversation scenarios with thousands of U.S.-based students and working professionals.
Specifically, to explore this phenomenon, we conducted a series of lab studies in which we had participants ask questions that could yield valuable information, but were consistently characterized as “intrusive,” “uncomfortable,” and “inappropriate” — questions such as “what is your salary?,” “have you ever had financial problems?,” and “have you ever committed a crime?.” We paired up our participants and gave one person in each pair a list of questions to ask. Before starting the conversation, we had them predict how uncomfortable those questions would make their counterpart feel. Then, after they engaged in the conversation and asked their questions, the askers told us how uncomfortable they thought the questions had made their counterpart feel. Separately, we asked their conversation partners how uncomfortable they actually felt, being asked these questions.
We conducted a series of experiments using this framework, exploring both in-person and text-based chat conversations, as well as pairings involving both strangers and friends. Here’s a chat excerpt from one of the conversations:
A: How did you get your current job?
B: I got it through an internship, I worked for them during college then got offered a permanent position
A: Cool, how much is your salary
B: Around 45,000 a year
A: Not bad. Have you ever had an affair?
B: Nope never had an affair
Across our studies, we found that the questioners predicted that asking sensitive questions would make their partners feel extremely uncomfortable and would significantly damage their relationships (whether it was a new relationship with a stranger, or an existing relationship with a friend). Similarly, after the conversations, they believed that asking the sensitive questions had in fact made their partners feel extremely uncomfortable and damaged their relationships.
To test just how reluctant people were to ask sensitive questions, we conducted a follow-up study in which we let people choose the questions they wanted to ask, but offered a cash incentive for asking sensitive questions. The more sensitive questions the participants asked, the larger the bonus they would receive. We found that these incentives did induce some people to ask more sensitive questions, but most people still avoided asking sensitive questions — even when they were paired with a complete stranger and money was on the line.
In another study, we incentivized askers to make either a really good impression or a really bad impression on their counterpart. We told askers that we would pay them a bonus based on how their counterpart rated them. We found that participants incentivized to make a good impression asked the fewest sensitive questions, and participants incentivized to make a bad impression asked the most. Participants in the control group (who were not given any incentive to make a good or bad impression) also asked relatively few sensitive questions.
In all of our experiments, the questioners assumed that asking sensitive questions would make their conversation partners uncomfortable and would damage their relationships. But in fact, we consistently found that askers were wrong on both fronts. Overall, the conversation partners gave much higher ratings of comfort than the questions-askers predicted, and whether the askers asked sensitive or non-sensitive questions actually made no difference on either discomfort or the impact of the conversation on the participants’ relationship: conversation partners formed similarly favorable impressions of askers who posed sensitive questions as they did of askers who posed mundane questions. Moreover, evidence suggests that asking personal questions not only affords an opportunity to gather valuable information, but it may also actually trigger meaningful conversations that foster stronger lasting relationships.
So, if the actual cost of asking these questions is smaller than we might predict, why are people so hesitant to ask them? Sometimes, of course, the context really does make posing these questions unwise or impractical. However, we would argue that, just as often, it comes down to a flawed mental model: We systematically fail to correctly predict how our conversation partners will react.
There are a few reasons for this disconnect. First, many people are so averse to asking sensitive questions that they avoid sensitive topics altogether, and thus they never get the chance to learn that these conversations could have gone better than expected. In addition, our findings suggest that even when people do steel their resolve and ask sensitive questions, they may think that they have harmed their relationships more than they actually have.
Finally, though we did not find specific evidence of this in our studies, it is possible that participants may have had a bad experience asking a sensitive question in the past, and that that memorable experience may have been so salient that it caused them to continue to overweight the potential risks of asking these questions.
Of course, how you ask a sensitive question matters a lot. Rather than directly blurting out a delicate question whenever and wherever it comes to mind, take the time to explain why you’re asking the question and how you plan to use the information. A bit of preparation can go a long way: Reflect on why you want to ask, whether you really need the information, whether there’s any context that might inform how the question will be perceived, and find an appropriate, private environment for a one-on-one conversation.
We are not encouraging anyone to abandon good manners, or to ignore cultural norms. But we would invite people to challenge their assumptions about the harm that asking sensitive questions actually causes. These questions are often the key both to acquiring valuable information and to building more positive relationships — and our research shows that they usually cause far less discomfort than we might guess.
Einav Hart is an assistant professor of management at George Mason University’s School of Business, and a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Her research focuses on how we approach difficult conversations, negotiation, and other potentially conflictual situations.
Eric M. VanEpps is an assistant professor of marketing at the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah.
Maurice Schweitzer is the Cecilia Yen Koo Professor at the Wharton School and co-author of Friend & Foe. His research interests include negotiations, emotions, and deception.
Copyright 2020 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.