“When you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.” – When Harry Met Sally
A few weeks ago, Rocket and I attended a seminar with Stanford professor, Francis Flynn. As we were eating lunch, he pulled out a sets of 10 questions for each pair, instructing us to: alternate between who asks the question first, each answer all of the questions, and not to mix up the order! There is a lot of hype online about this exercise making strangers fall in love, but I like to focus on how this exercise can help strengthen existing relationships. Rocket and I really enjoyed the experience, and I recommend you try it with family, friends or a significant other.
Rocket and I were separated as the point of the exercise this time was to connect with a stranger. As we answered the questions, both of us grew increasingly comfortable with our respective partners, and even made fun of ourselves in the process. It was surprising to discuss personal matters with a stranger without feeling violated or uncomfortably exposed in just 15 minutes.
The exercise comes from Dr. Arthur and Elaine Aron’s psychology study on love and relationships. In over 50 years of research, they came up with 36 questions that help strangers establish a closer relationship. So, how is this possible?
The keys to this experiment are the order of the questions (each one getting increasingly more personal), both people answering each question, and alternating between who asks the question first (reciprocity and equality respectively). The order of the questions enables you to ease into discussing more personal topics that would typically take many meetings over a period of months to broach. How often has someone asked you, “How do you feel about the relationship with your mother” (question #24) the first time you meet? Second time? Tenth time? However, after reciprocally sharing personal bits of information for the first 23 questions, surprisingly this question doesn’t feel as random or invasive.
A key factor is that you aren’t alone in your disclosure or vulnerability. By alternating between who answers the question first, you feel a sense of equality and have the chance to instinctively adjust how much personal information you share based on the other person’s responses. This exercise will not result in close friendships if participants are unwilling to open up, but for those that do this process can lead to accelerated intimacy and in some studies of opposite sex partners, marriage was a frequent result!
Dr. Aron also suggests that couples who have known each other for a while can experiment with the questions as well. He puts it this way:
“The theory is, when you’re first in a romantic relationship, there’s an intense excitement, but then you grow used to each other. If you do something new and challenging, that reminds you of how exciting it can be with your partner, it makes your relationship better.”
So over lunch Rocket and I decided to test out these questions, although we changed a few to better fit our relationship (see below). However our first attempt was a big failure! We were under time constraints in the middle of the work day, which created tension instead of openness. We either didn’t elaborate enough or felt annoyed if our answers weren’t fast enough. After 3 questions, we realized our mistakes and opted to try it again later!
We found two things to be very important when your partner is someone close to you. You have to both decide to leave out any judgments over how a question is answered. When experimenting with a stranger, you normally wouldn’t criticize their answers, but instead choose to listen intently. The same idea applies for a partner whom you already have a deep connection. Think of it as a first date. This creates a space of openness and vulnerability. Both partners have to feel comfortable speaking without fear of negative reactions.
Secondly, the initial 36 questions are meant to be suggestions. So if you plan on using them with someone you know well, you might need to change them to be relevant. You can continue the same idea with different questions each time. The only rule is that each question should get more personal.
Since moving to Dubai, I have had a lot of interactions that were surface level in nature. Now I plan to take this approach and adapt it to interactions with different people in hopes of establishing better connections. I will update you on my progress!
- Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
- Would you like to be famous? In what way?
- Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why?
- What would constitute a “perfect” day for you?
- When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?
- 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?
- What’s something you are glad you never have to do again?
- Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common.
- For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
- If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
- Take four minutes and tell your partner your life story in as much detail as possible.
- If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?
- If you asked God one question right now about your life, what would it be?
- Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
- What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
- What do you value most in a friendship?
- What is your most treasured memory?
- What is your most terrible memory?
- If you knew that in one year you would die suddenly, would you change anything about the way you are now living? Why?
- What does friendship mean to you?
- What roles do love and affection play in your life?
- Alternate sharing something you consider a positive characteristic of your partner. Share a total of five items.
- How close and warm is your family? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other people’s?
- How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?
- Make three true “we” statements each. For instance, “We are both in this room feeling…”
- Complete this sentence: “I wish I had someone with whom I could share…”
- If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know.
- 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.
- Share with your partner an embarrassing moment in your life.
- When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?
- Tell your partner something that you like about them [already].
- What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?
- What’s a recent failure that you have had?
- 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?
- What is one thought that you about me during this conversation that you haven’t told me yet? Maybe you weren’t planning on it? If so, why not?
- 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.