The power of the question

Last night I met with a PR account coordinator to interview her for a book that I am writing. I met her about two years ago when I was speaking at the University of Denver. I saw her again a couple months after that at a local PR awards dinner and spent a few minutes talking with her. She was about to graduate with a public relations degree and wanted some advice on where to go next. While I met a lot of people that day, something about her stuck in my mind to the point that when I first decided to write this book, I knew that she would be one of my first interviews for the project.

As we talked about the PR industry in the dark recesses of an upscale downtown bar, I asked her point blank, what is it about her that makes her so memorable? Remember, this is a person that I spoke with for probably a half hour total over two encounters two years ago. After thinking it over for a little while, she responded, “I ask the right questions.” Almost as quickly as the words came, I could see a hint of sadness and concern cross her face, and she added “But I’m getting to the point in my career where I don’t get to ask questions anymore, I’m just expected to have the answers.”

We talked for a little while longer before I walked her back to her office and drove home. The whole way home, her words kept bouncing around in my mind “… I don’t get to ask questions anymore.” I remembered the first time I got my ass chewed for asking a client a question. The client threw out a three letter acronym and I asked what it meant. On the way back to the office I was sternly told if I ever have questions, I should write them down, research them on the Internet and never tell anyone that I didn’t know. “We are paid to be the experts, we have the answers, we do not ask questions,” I was told.

I nodded politely and never made that “mistake” again, but I knew that was his style, not mine. Life is not about having the right answers, it is about asking the right questions. Asking the right questions allow the right answers to flow. Forcing your ideas, and your answers, may be good for your ego, but business is about building relationships, not building your ego. Even if I think I have the answers, asking the right questions allows the group to reach the same conclusion and gives a little indication to the process I used to get here – just like in school when the teacher demanded that you show your work.

We grow, both personally and professionally, because we ask questions. When we only provide answers, only the ego grows. I always endeavor to surround myself with people who are smarter that I, so it stands to reason that carefully considered questions will get to the right answer, whether it is the conclusion I already arrived at or not. If you are hiring people who need you to feed them the answers, stop. If you are hiring consultants who feed you answers without explaining how they reached those conclusions, stop. If you expect your employees to have the right answers without giving them the ability to ask the right questions, stop.

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