Why Do You Ask (Issue 632)

In which we are reminded that very few questions come from idle curiosity.

During an “it’s been a long time since we talked” telephone conversation with a client team member, I asked, “What’s new with you?” And she answered. Then, she asked me the same question: “What’s new with you?”

I shared a bit about my family, Clarity’s business in general, and a couple of specific projects that are related to the business operations she supports. She listened quietly and, when I finished my description, she asked (about one of the projects): “Tell me a little more about that one.”  So I did.

At the end of my description, I asked, “Would you like me to send you a description of the work we did there?” She said, “Yes.”

So, if these sound like buying signals to you, you might be right in a perfect world. My partner in this telephone conference had never engaged us and, as far as I was concerned, her interest in this was personal  – she respects us and wanted to look under the hood at some of the work we have been doing.

So, I sent her a description of the work. Receiving no reply, I let it go for a few weeks and set an Outlook task to check back with her.

After a few weeks, I sent her a short e-mail saying, “Would you like to talk any further about it?”

“Yes,” she replied almost immediately, and suggested times two days later. I thought that was very gracious, compared with, “sure, I can chat with you in about five weeks.”

Two days later, as the call began, we spent a few minutes passing pleasantries about her summer and my summer, and then she said, without further introduction, “On page 1 of your description, you mention a blah blah blah. How do you do that?” I answered. “At the top of page 2 in the document, you said… what does that mean?” I answered. “Then, a little further down the page, you describe… how big a group could that work with?” I answered. “On the top of page 4, you describe… why do you do it that way?” I answered.

It felt a little like being in a restaurant where one of the dinner guests asks a waiter questions about a dish –  “Do you use butter or olive oil? Are there egg whites? How much salt do you use?  Were the vegetables grown outside in the sun or in some hothouse somewhere?”

Like the restaurant waiter, I felt a little confused and off balance. So I asked her a question, words to the effect of: “What leads you to ask these questions?”  In other words, “What’s going on? Why are you asking me these questions in this way?”

Well, it turns out that she was thinking about a specific application of the engagement I described in my document. And after we had discussed the specific application and what she liked most about the engagement I had described to her, she asked, “and what would all of this cost?”

I suspect that, given the focus of her questions, she would have made her intentions clear at some point during that conversation.

However, the question, “What leads you to ask these questions?” is a very powerful tool when we experience clients or children or spouses or co-workers asking us a series of evaluative questions about us or our products or our capabilities. Very few questions come from “idle curiosity.”

Rather than simply answering the questions, understanding WHY the questions are being asked helps us shape the discussion and orchestrate the solution.

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