As children, most of us were probably inquisitive. We were trying to learn about the world around us and asked lots of questions. In fact, one study found that youngsters do this as much as 300 times a day. They wonder about such toughies as “Why is water wet?” Where does the sky end?” and “What are shadows made of?”
But as we grow older, things change. In school, we are expected to tell, not ask. We learn that students who give answers get praised and rewarded. Those who ask too many questions, meanwhile, are often met with frustration or resistance. The educational system is designed to deliver knowledge based on a curriculum, not by the Socratic method.
Incentives like these influence our behavior, leading us to focus on things that reward us in some way. And as with playing an instrument or engaging in sports, a lack of practice can make us rusty, causing the relevant skills to wither away. Because of this, most of us likely lacked the impetus to keep asking questions as a matter of course.
In many cases, this pattern has remained with us into adulthood. We come to believe that people want to hear what’s on our minds, that the perceptions and knowledge of the world we’ve acquired over time means we have the answers others are looking for. Whether in relationships, at work, or in everyday life, it can be easy to think that too many questions get in the way of real communication.
But nothing could be farther from the truth. Regardless of what we have learned or how much we have interacted with others, there is plenty we don’t know. Yes, we may have some idea based on past experience, but is that enough? Each of us is the product of varying circumstances, cultures, and histories with others; we have unique ways of perceiving our world.
What you don’t know, or think you do
Paradoxically, our differences and biases can lead us to make snap judgements and direct our thinking in a particular direction, regardless of whether it is accurate or not. In some cases, the way people act, or their position in life, can color our understanding. Does the fact that someone speaks with a lower-class accent or has a large pile of money mean their words should be taken at other than face value?
Other factors can also influence our perceptions. For example, when two people seem to enjoy engaging in an activity together, that doesn’t necessarily mean they see things the same way. For one, being with someone who shares their interest might reinforce the pleasure they get from doing something they really care about. For the other, it might simply help to alleviate feelings of loneliness.
Aside from the fact that we can never really understand what is going on in somebody else’s mind, we might not even be fully aware of what is happening in our own. People can delude themselves about who they are, intentionally or otherwise, and they may have no real sense of self-awareness. They don’t understand why they think or act as they do, even if it is spelled out to them in perfect detail.
There are also the inherent risks of making assumptions. As a race, we have likely survived because of our ability to make quick decisions in an often unfamiliar, dangerous or complicated world based on past experience and an ability to analogize. But as individuals, these same instincts can easily lead to misunderstanding and mistakes.
This is true even when we are simply trying to convey information. As we wrote in “The Little Things Matter,” there’s more to communication than words alone. Without context or other elements that help flesh out a message, it is easy to misinterpret what somebody writes in an email or text. When we see their gestures, expressions and the whites of their eyes, it can help us better understand what they might actually be trying to say.
Of course, people perceive and figure out things in various ways, not just through direct interaction. This might mean reading a book or article, or watching a video. It could mean taking a course or getting training from a source that appears to offer relevant knowledge and expertise. It might also mean learning empirically or through experimentation – trial-and-error.
The other way
But there is another way to learn what you don’t know. It involves asking questions, especially the right kinds of questions. While there are undoubtedly situations where a yes-or-no question might suffice, such queries tend to leave a lot of information on the table, so to speak. The risk is that the answer you get might mean something slightly different, or even the opposite, depending on the situation.
Fortunately, we know that some types of questions work better than others. These include the open-ended variety – like “What do you mean?” or “What makes you say that?” – which tend to provide us with more insight than “Are you feeling all right?” or “Do you want to do this?” If somebody says he is “fine,” what does that really tell you? Does it mean he is OK for now, good this week, or marginally better than he was a few days ago?
Follow-up questions, including specific-after-general ones, can also lead to more useful and satisfying answers. In the Showtime docuseries, Couples Therapy, therapist Dr. Orna Guralnik regularly uses this technique – often with just a single expression: “and…?” – to help her and her patients better understand the issues at hand. Knowing that something is important is one thing; understanding why is altogether different.
But acquiring knowledge and gaining more insight are not the only reasons why you might want to adopt a more inquisitive approach. When we ask questions and express interest in what others say, it creates empathy and builds trust. A key component of active listening – where your actions make it clear you really care – asking questions can help strengthen and deepen our connections with others.
Good for business, too
Asking more and better questions won’t just benefit your personal life. The strategy can also be quite useful in your business and professional life. Being more curious about your work, your company, and those you interact with can pay off in various ways. Aside from making you more knowledgeable, it can enhance your ability to get things done.
This is particularly true if you are in a leadership or sales role. It can be a challenge, to say the least, to convince others to accept and adopt a certain course of action, especially when they are naturally hesitant or skeptical. But if you can create a common bond and help everyone gain a better understanding of issues and outcomes, it makes acceptance that much easier.
Indeed, such an approach lies at the core of an increasingly popular sales strategy called “diagnostic selling.” The goal is not to get people to buy your product or service because you have a great script or can answer all their objections – assuming you even have what they need. In reality, they might not even understand what their problems are – or if your solution is the right one.
By engaging with them and asking questions along the way – about themselves, their business, their (potential) problems, other strategies they may have tried, etc. – it creates a common bond and an understanding of what may be required. Making assumptions about any of these aspects – or about life more generally – is more likely the road to frustration than the path to enlightenment.
Keep in mind that it’s not just about asking the right questions. It’s important to interact with others in ways they can understand, or at least with an empathetic ear. Ensuring that your words that are not overly colored by your own biases and attitudes also helps. Finally, there is little point in “leading the witness” if you are looking for real answers.
That said, taking the strategy to its extremes or failing to account for life’s realities can have a downside. It’s one thing to thoughtfully probe for answers. It’s another to interrogate people like criminals. In some cases, getting to the heart of the matter may take longer than anticipated if they have more pressing matters on their minds or other things get in the way.
In the end, perhaps the best way to realize the benefits of asking questions is to revisit an earlier time in your life. That is, if you want to learn and grow and find answers to what matters, go ahead and act like a child again.