Just 36 questions. That’s supposedly all it takes to fall in love. Intrigued? So was I…
In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, I feel the urge to share a fascinating strategy I just recently learned from The Science of Happiness Podcast (produced by the University of Berkeley and PRI) for creating intimacy that has been proven to have wide-ranging implications not only within budding and romantic relationships, but could also be applied to the creation of deeper platonic bonds with friends, family, students and coworkers.
Before exploring the tactic, itself, we’ve got to rewind to 1997 in the Relationships Lab at Stonybrook University, New York, when psychologist and researcher, Arthur Aron invited two complete strangers into his lab to sit across from one another for a 90-minute period. They were instructed to take turns asking each other 36 specific questions based-in “sustained, escalating, and reciprocal personal self-disclosure, which culminated in a period of staring into each other’s eyes for a period of 4 minutes.
Can you say, awkward?
The results were nothing short of surprising. This contrived scientific set-up seems to have no connection whatsoever with the realities of Real Life; therefore, it would seem logical for anyone to be skeptical that any successful connection could be achieved under these conditions. Here’s where it gets fascinating…
Despite the initial discomfort and seemingly inauthentic nature of the situation, the strangers he invited into his lab kept in touch and 6 months later, the couple invited all of the study’s researchers and assistants to their wedding.
Again, it’s hard not to be skeptical. How could 36 questions and a 90-minute period in a lab which accelerated intimacy truly serve as a strong enough foundation for long term love? Enter Mandy Len Catron, a Vancouver-based writer and professor at UBC. Having recently suffered relationship heartbreak, she learned about the study and vowed to give it a shot, more out of skeptical curiosity than expectation. Finding a willing participant, a gym acquaintance who also had an inquisitive and experimental nature, she wrote about her experience in her popular New York Times post, To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This.
They decided to meet in a bar (not a lab), proceeded to spend the next two hours passing her phone across the table, and taking turns posing each other the questions. She compares the process of entering and creating the vulnerable space together through the content of the answers to a frog being boiled in water. By the time they reached the second and third tier of questions, they were already invested…and by that point, it didn’t feel that uncomfortable. The truth is, she said she found herself enjoying learning about herself through the questions, the shared experiences, and the opportunity for self-expansion. Self-expansion, she describes, is the ability to” incorporate others into our sense of self. Some of the questions, which focused on thoughtfully complimenting the other person, were especially challenging.
When launching the 21-Day Small Act Big Impact Kindness Challenge with students of all-ages, I’ve usually ask them to give each other compliments at some point during the presentation. Without fail, their compliments wind-up being superficial in spirit, or in other words, safe. The point of the exercise is to draw their attention to the discomfort of the task and to ask them to challenge themselves every day to practice their compliment-giving muscle.
The habit of giving heartfelt compliments makes us vulnerable. It has the potential to open us up to being hurt. When we really look at people, we truly see them. When we see others, we also see ourselves. It can be scary. Ironically, that process of becoming vulnerable enables others to know you. Catron remembers that on the other side of her initial fear, she wound up feeling unexpectedly brave, courageous, and connected to the man sitting across from her.
When it came time for them to stare at each other silently for 4 minutes, they both agreed that it felt too intimate and strange for the bar, so they relocated to a nearby bridge. “What I like about this study is how it assumes that love is in action…it assumes that what matters to my partner matters to me…because he let me look at him.”
I’m sure you’re all wondering…did they fall in love? The answer? Yes. Although, she attributes the love they have to more than just the study. “Love didn’t happen to us. We’re in love because we made the choice to be.”
Mmmmk…so how does this relate to me? Practical uses for the 36 questions beyond awkward singles experiments that, let’s face it, require the willingness and vulnerability of a stranger:
We all have relationships. Period. Whether they are romantic or platonic, we could all use a little tune-up, right? Researchers out of Berkeley University have found that these (adapted) questions have incredible applications with team-building, creating lasting employee relationships, and can mend broken race/gender relations. Adapt this 36-question list to suit you.
- When you’re on a road trip, use the questions to get to know your family, friends, or kids better.
- Use the questions as a basis and reminder for developing compliment-giving within the classroom. And when it comes to children, it is essential we give them the platform to develop the confidence and trust needed to practice the art of giving compliments within the classroom and at home. (If this interests you, check out the lesson I’ve written on teaching about Compliment Circles in the classroom).
- Remember that going ‘deep’ should be preceded by mutual vulnerability, which should function to bring you closer. Brené Brown always urges us to share your stories only with those who have earned the right. Not everyone has earned the right to your vulnerability. It has to be mutual. The power balance has to be equal in order for this to be effective.
- On that same note, if you’re thinking these 36 questions are great ‘first-date’ material, I would strongly urge you to reconsider. Both people have to be willing, consenting participants. Springing these questions on an unsuspecting fellow human will likely not result in favourable outcomes!
- If some of these questions seem too personal for the office or workplace, you could always channel the spirit of wanting to get to know those around you better by falling back on the ready-to-go The Curiosity Project question cards.
[An aside about these cool cards: I was recently introduced to the Curiosity Project by Elizabeth Milder, a successful entrepreneur and creator of Queens of Expansion, who just recently interviewed me on her 5th episode of Queens of Expansion Vlog and podcast. Check her out on the socials when you get a chance. Her work to create a community of like-minded women, supporting each other to achieve greatness in the world is inspiring and awe-inspiring! She is definitely someone to be watch. I’ll be posting the link to the podcast when it comes out on Saturday! Let me know what you think.]
The 36 Questions:
1. Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
2. Would you like to be famous? In what way?
3. Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why?
4. What would constitute a “perfect” day for you?
5. When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?
6. If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year-old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you want?
7. Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?
8. Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common.
9. For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
10. If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
11. Take four minutes and tell your partner your life story in as much detail as possible.
12. If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?
13. If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future or anything else, what would you want to know?
14. Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
15. What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
16. What do you value most in a friendship?
17. What is your most treasured memory?
18. What is your most terrible memory?
19. If you knew that in one year you would die suddenly, would you change anything about the way you are now living? Why?
20. What does friendship mean to you?
21. What roles do love and affection play in your life?
22. Alternate sharing something you consider a positive characteristic of your partner. Share a total of five items.
23. How close and warm is your family? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other people’s?
24. How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?
25. Make three true “we” statements each. For instance, “We are both in this room feeling … “
26. Complete this sentence: “I wish I had someone with whom I could share … “
27. If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know.
28. Tell your partner what you like about them; be very honest this time, saying things that you might not say to someone you’ve just met.
29. Share with your partner an embarrassing moment in your life.
30. When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?
31. Tell your partner something that you like about them already.
32. What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?
33. If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t you told them yet?
34. Your house, containing everything you own, catches fire. After saving your loved ones and pets, you have time to safely make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be? Why?
35. Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?
36. Share a personal problem and ask your partner’s advice on how he or she might handle it. Also, ask your partner to reflect back to you how you seem to be feeling about the problem you have chosen.
As always, let me know what you think or how this influenced you. I always love feedback!