The Case for Asking Sensitive Questions

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Einav Hart, Eric M. VanEpps, and Maurice Schweitzer for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

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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.

[They then provide a chat excerpt Here’s a chat excerpt from one of the conversations.]

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

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.


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