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Why You Shouldn’t Be Afraid to Ask Sensitive Questions

In the dance that is conversation, participants are often reluctant to ask sensitive questions for fear of stepping on their partner’s toes. But that fear is overblown, according to new research that shows that most people don’t really mind answering sensitive questions, and asking them doesn’t leave a bad impression. In fact, direct questions about delicate topics can lead to deeper, more meaningful conversations that foster greater understanding and bring people closer together. Einav Hart, assistant management professor at George Mason University; Eric VanEpps, assistant marketing professor at the University of Utah; and Maurice Schweitzer, a Wharton professor of operations, information and decisions, talked to Knowledge@Wharton about their paper, “The (Better Than Expected) Consequences of Asking Sensitive Questions,” which was published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. They explained why we might too frequently avoid touchy subjects during conversation, whether with strangers, co-workers or friends.

Listen to the podcast at the top of this page, or read an edited transcript of the conversation below.

Knowledge@Wharton: What generated the idea for your study?

Maurice Schweitzer: We were interested in thinking about the exchange of information. When we’re making a decision or we’re deciding how to negotiate, we really need information from our counterparts. We can do our homework before we get started, but once we sit down with someone or we’re talking to them across some media, we should be asking them questions to gather information.

That information can be incredibly important in guiding what we do and what we say. Past research suggests that we should ask questions, but it really comes up short with respect to what kinds of questions we should be asking. In some recent work I did with Eric, we looked at how different kinds of questions might elicit more or less accurate information, and in work I did with Einav, we looked at negotiations where this information is so incredibly important.

So, the three of us began to think about how we ask questions in normal communication and in negotiations. We found that rather than just using questions to elicit information, we also ask questions to achieve some other goals. Sometimes we might try to manage the impressions we create, or we might try to amuse other people with the communication. It’s not merely the case that I’m using communication to get ideas in my head into your head and to get ideas from your head into my head, but rather we use communication to achieve some other ulterior goals. As a result, we might not ask the questions that would be most useful for us.

Knowledge@Wharton: What is a sensitive question? And does it change with context?

Einav Hart: We define sensitive questions as questions that are about topics that you might feel uncomfortable to discuss. These can be questions that are inappropriate in a specific context, and/or about information that the other person would probably want to keep private or not discuss. A lot of things can come to mind, such as questions about your financial situation, questions about politics, about religion, about relationships you have with others. A lot of questions can fit all three of these criteria. If you outright ask someone, “Have you had an affair?” — especially if their partner is in the room — that can be a topic that is uncomfortable and inappropriate, and it’s information that people would like to keep private.

“One thing that questions do is express interest in other people. They demonstrate that we’re other-focused.”–Maurice Schweitzer

Naturally, how sensitive questions are depends on the context. For example, who is around, who you are asking, what culture you’re in, the norms of that culture and the relationship you have with your conversational partner. What could be sensitive with a stranger may or may not be sensitive with a co-worker or with a close friend.

Another thing that we found interesting, and we’ll probably look at in future research, is cultural and group organizational norms. For example, discussion of salary might be sensitive in some cultures, say in the U.S., but less so in others — such as Israel, where I’m from.

Knowledge@Wharton: What do you gain by asking sensitive questions? Or what could you lose by not asking them?

Eric VanEpps: The sensitive questions that we’re looking to study should be questions that we’re actually interested in learning the answers to. We’re not prescribing that people ask any and all sensitive questions that come to mind, but rather that they ask questions that could be useful to them. Avoiding these awkward questions could often come at a cost. If you’re negotiating a salary or choosing where to live, it could be quite useful to know how much a co-worker earns or how much a friend pays in rent. In a lot of circumstances, we think that a better understanding of our peers, our co-workers, these people we’re interacting with — understanding their personal lives or knowing information that might feel sensitive — can help us navigate our own professional and social interactions. Asking direct questions is one of the most effective, direct ways to learn that important information.

If we were trying to get the same information in a more indirect manner, it can come across as really clumsy. It might create its own set of costs. Imagine you want to know how much a co-worker earns. If you’re not comfortable asking directly, you might create more problems by trying to be indirect and hoping that they disclose the information, trying to hint at their salary or get a sense of what they’re purchasing to get a sense of how much they earn. We think it’s better to ask directly. That’s going to get you the information you want and avoid some of these other interpersonal costs that you might create by trying to avoid sensitive questions.

Hart: Another potential benefit of asking these questions is that they can bring us a lot closer together than sticking with mundane topics. I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of these endless conversations about the weather and random events, whereas asking sincere questions and talking about personal topics can strengthen relationships. But we often don’t ask them because we fear harming those very relationships.

Knowledge@Wharton: You wrote in your paper that there are certain benefits in the act of asking a question. Aside from what you’ve pointed out and aside from just gathering information, what are those benefits?

Schweitzer: One thing that questions do is they express interest in other people. They demonstrate that we’re other-focused. That can be extremely important in building relationships, demonstrating concern for others, and helping us signal benevolence and that we’re kind and caring and interested. This is true even if what we really ultimately want to do is advance our own interests or improve our own decision-making. But at the same time, people like that attention, they like being engaged in a process.

Another thing questions can do is reveal some information. If I ask a very technical question or a very specific question, it can demonstrate that I’m prepared or that I really know my field or I know the intricacies of what we’re talking about. We can reveal important information, or information about our assumptions through the questions that we ask.

The next thing questions can do is invite reciprocal questions. If I ask you how your weekend was, you’re far more likely to ask me how my weekend was in return. By asking questions, we can trigger a return question, and that can change the course of a conversation.

Knowledge@Wharton: Let’s also explore the concept of impression management. Can you explain what that is and why it’s important in this context?

VanEpps: We want other people to think positively of us. We want them to think that we’re good, nice, interesting people. I would say the current generation has a lot of practice at this. Think about any social media platform. When we create our own profile, we are practicing impression management all the time. We are choosing what photos to post, we are editing those photos, we are curating an experience for other people to try to create a good impression of ourselves and manage that impression for others.

This desire to make a good impression is very strong and affects many of our behaviors, not just on social media. We see a lot of these impression management behaviors and motivations in conversation as well. This could be attempts at flattering other people or humble-bragging or engaging in all kinds of potentially uncomfortable social interactions because you think that might make a good impression on others.

“What could be sensitive with a stranger may or may not be sensitive with a co-worker or with a close friend.”–Einav Hart

In this project, we focused on how these impression management concerns might drive what questions we choose to ask, as well as why we might avoid asking certain kinds of questions. We’re finding that people consistently err too far on the side of politeness, are too worried about offending other people, maybe over-generalizing this decision rule of “better safe than sorry,” and that’s leading them to avoid asking sensitive questions out of fear that they would offend their conversation partners, that they would make a bad impression on someone else. Of course, what we do find in this paper is that when people do ask these sensitive questions, most people are far less offended. They’re creating a good impression relative to what askers had previously predicted or assumed.

Knowledge@Wharton: How did you go about studying this? Could you describe a couple of your experiments and tell us what you found?

Hart: In our research, we looked at questions that [yielded] valuable information, but were consistently characterized by participants as sensitive, intrusive, uncomfortable and inappropriate. For example: What is your salary? Have you ever had financial problems? Have you ever gone to therapy? Have you ever cheated on a partner?

In our experiments, we paired strangers; and in one study, we paired friends. Before participants started the conversation, we assigned one to the role of question-asker, and we gave them a list of questions that they could choose to ask. We then had this person forecast how uncomfortable the other person would feel, and think about what impression you would make on this other person.

After the conversation, we asked the participants to think about how uncomfortable they made the counterpart feel, how uncomfortable they themselves felt, as well as what do you think about the other person, and what impression the other person has of you.

Across our studies, we find that people are very, very reluctant to ask sensitive questions. This is in large part because people assume that asking sensitive questions would make the other person feel very uncomfortable and would create a negative impression. This is the case both before people asked or have the conversation, as well as after people had the conversation. Even after you’ve had the conversation, you still think it went a lot worse than the respondent actually feels. In one study, we even gave people the incentive — a monetary bonus — to make a good impression, and that led them to choose even fewer sensitive questions. This points to the very strong impact of our desire to make a good impression on what we’re willing to do even when we value this information and even when these are relative strangers in an experimental study.

VanEpps: One other thing I would mention is that we ran these studies with online participants where people are interacting over a text chat, and we also ran some of these studies with in-person, face-to-face conversations. We find the same general pattern across both contexts. Even though you might think about people generally being disinhibited online, even in those online contexts, people were reluctant to ask sensitive questions. We observed that it’s because of this concern about the other person being uncomfortable or the impression that you’ve made on the other person.

Knowledge@Wharton: Did it surprise you that there wasn’t a difference in those two contexts?

VanEpps: I should say there is a small difference. We do find that people are even more uncomfortable [asking sensitive questions] in the face-to-face context, but broadly speaking we can say this effect is robust in both face-to-face and online interactions. You could think of the online environment as a very conservative test of this hypothesis, but even there people seem reluctant to ask sensitive questions, which makes us feel like this is a pretty strong, consistent phenomenon.

“You shouldn’t ask every sensitive question that comes to mind, but we’re trying to encourage a general shift toward more asking because we think it can prevent making faulty assumptions.”–Eric VanEpps

Hart: In one of our studies, we had participants come into the lab with a friend, and we paired them either with these friends or with strangers. In both of these contexts, we see that people really think that asking sensitive questions will be very harmful. This is actually not the case for both strangers and friends. Even when these are people we know, we shy away from these helpful, valuable questions because of our concern for relationships and impressions.

Knowledge@Wharton: What is the upshot for anyone wanting to ask a sensitive question? Should they ask or should they not ask?

VanEpps: We would say that if you were on the edge of asking a sensitive question, you probably should. It’s these edge cases that we’re most interested in, and we’re finding again and again that people overestimate the relationship cost of asking sensitive questions. If you’re going back and forth on whether it’s worth it, we think this more accurate understanding of how people actually react would cause you to decide that it’s worth it most of the time.

On the other hand, if you were completely convinced that asking a certain sensitive question would offend your conversation partner, and it’s not even that valuable to you, then that’s probably a time to let discretion be your guide, to exercise caution, to not ask all of those questions. You shouldn’t ask every sensitive question that comes to mind, but we’re trying to encourage a general shift toward more asking because we think it can prevent making faulty assumptions. We think this can lead to important information exchanges, and generally, will make conversations more interesting.

Hart: Again, it doesn’t make people as uncomfortable as we think it would. The cost of it is really lower in many cases than we think it is.

Knowledge@Wharton: What unanswered questions does your study raise? What might you look at next?

Schweitzer: There are several interesting directions to build on from this. First, related to the comments that Eric and Einav just shared, we find pretty broadly across our studies that the negative consequences people feared really weren’t borne out. As people were asking sensitive questions, they were fearing a bad outcome, and we didn’t find that at all. Some people asked how much money you make, or if you’ve ever had an affair, or how much you pay in rent. The questions people asked did not upset other people at all. But where is that line? How edgy could the questions get among friends across different contexts, across different cultures to [really understand] where the boundaries are? Because I think there are likely to be important boundaries.

Second is to think about when sensitive questions are most likely to build rapport as they signal closeness or spark a really meaningful conversation. Maybe there are some types of sensitive questions that are particularly likely to be a launching pad for more meaningful conversation.

The third piece is to think more deeply about what information questions communicate. Not only is this a tool for eliciting information, but it’s also a tool for revealing information, revealing our interests, revealing our values.

Finally, think about the nature of the group. The studies we ran were all in dyads, in groups of two. I think people are most likely to disclose sensitive information in dyads. But there are interactions where signaling information, setting norms could be more interesting when we think about taking some of this research into group settings. From cross-cultural to groups to building rapport, there are a lot of open questions.


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