On a superficial level, I like asking questions. They’re easy. They’re painless. They take little effort on my part. When I’m nervous speaking, they give me a break to collect and attend to what little insecurities have bubbled up over the course of a conversation. And most of all, they make people like me more.
But asking questions is a skill not for the careless or the weak of will. Many questions are just plain silly. And to ask a really good question – well, that takes a lot of work.
I first learned about the importance of asking questions around the same time I came across personalities like Dale Carnegie. A daring blend of successful and kind, Carnegie believed in the people. Namely, he believed in creating meaningful connections out of interactions, by nourishing a genuine curiosity towards the other. And, in the process of course, winning some friends and influencing some people too.
A person’s name is to that person, the sweetest, most important sound in any languageDale Carnegie
Then, when I started to branch out of my sheltered world by listening to and speaking with people from vastly different backgrounds, I began to love asking questions even more. How can you hear someone’s story if you don’t ask them about it? More so, how can you possibly have an interesting conversation with someone without asking an interesting question?
As business manager this summer for an engineering design team on campus, one of my priorities was reaching out to sponsors. We needed several things. For our workshops, we wanted to purchase an expensive solar car kit. We needed team shirts to wear at all of our events. And more recently, for one of our projects, we needed to buy a sustainable cooler.
Creating the package was difficult. I reached out to many people on campus for help, and read all the articles I could find on the topic. They all said one thing: think like the sponsor. Which I did. I racked my brain for all the benefits we could bring to the sponsor, and all the reasons a sponsor might want to, well, sponsor.
When writing the emails, I took inventory of how difficult it was to completely shift how I was thinking. I wasn’t just asking for something, I was offering something. Rather than start by talking about our team and what we did and why we wanted to work with them, I started by talking about their company and why they might want to work with us.
It was a neat exercise in setting aside my one-sided perspective and really embracing another. And then, on a call with a sponsor, I realized just how much I assume about what other people want.
The sponsor had agreed to donate a sustainable cooler for us, made from a material that was kinder to the environment than styrofoam. I was thrilled he’d accepted my offer – which involved lots of social media promotion and inclusion of his product in our presentations and informational sessions. These were all great offers, and seemed suited for his company, and were very reasonable for us to accomplish.
On the call, I asked him about the size of the cooler and more information about the materials it was made of. Then, for good measure, and for the sake of doing a good promotional job for them, I began to ask about their sales channels. Did they ship to Canada? Most of the customers we’d bring them would probably be Canadian. Did he know that most of our audience was just families? Was he okay with that?
He started answering a few of my questions halfheartedly and then paused to say:
“You know, we’re really interested in the education component of your team. We like that you’re affiliated with a university and that people will learn about the negative impacts of styrofoam on the environment. We don’t really need many more sales right now.
Oh. Well that changes things, I thought.
I scanned back through my memories of our interactions and I realized, I’d been so busy trying to predict what he wanted out of the partnership that I’d forgotten to just ask.
I’d managed to a) realize that I needed to focus on the other and what they wanted, then b) proceeded to completely ignore the other and what they wanted. Good work, business manager.
First: it wasn’t about me. We live our lives seeing everything through one frame of reference, and with one brain and one set of wants that the exercise of detaching from the self once in a while is immensely difficult. But like Dale Carnegie and many other successful people can attest to, it’s a skill that merits investment.
And second: sure, I’d been asking a lot of questions. But I wasn’t asking the right questions, and for that you need to think not just of what answer YOU want to get, but what information THEY have to share.