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The power of questions

Posted in the following categories: Personal Development

“Tell less and ask more.

Your advice is not as good

As you think it is.”

— Haiku from The Coaching Habit.

We’re inundated with pitches on a daily basis: From online pop-ups to used car dealers, from spammy credit-card offers promising impossibly low interest rates to politicians delivering unshakably confident conclusions.

Our instinct is to resist them. We assume we’re about to get screwed over, so we subconsciously activate our defenses and put on a mental hazmat suit. Our minds start buzzing with “You’re about to be manipulated” and “This can’t possibly be true” alerts.

Although we resist pitches from others, we’re excellent at pitching ourselves. From our perspective, no one is as persuasive as us. A whole slew of cognitive biases lead us to filter out inconvenient truths and convince ourselves that we are undeniably correct.

Questions tap into this human tendency. Instead of pushing a point of view—which will be met with skepticism or outright rejection—they allow the other person to make up their own mind. I love this seemingly paradoxical quote from the director Gregory Ratoff: “Let me ask you a question, for your information.” If the brain had a tail, questions would get it to wag.

Questions also generate empathy. Often, we’re too quick to assume that we know the other person’s ailments. “I understand,” we say, not understanding at all, and then jump into canned “advice” mode. But our advice, as the opening haiku makes clear, isn’t as good as we think it is.

Yes, it appears more efficient to deliver a quick dose of advice and flood the other person with all that “wisdom” we accumulated over the years. But wisdom has never been cheaper. All of the world’s knowledge is at our fingertips. As Derek Sivers puts it, “if information was the answer then we’d all be billionaires with perfect abs.” It’s the execution of wisdom, not its reception, that’s difficult. And we’re far more likely to execute if we come to a solution on our own terms.

This is why I use the Socratic method in my law school classes. Sure, it’d be easier for me to simply lecture, deliver knowledge to the students as if it were a baton, and then ask them to regurgitate it back to me on the exam. But instead, I pose questions to get the students to find the answer on their own. This process is painful for both the student, who has to come up with an answer while their classmates watch, and for the teacher, who has to carefully formulate a question that nudges the student in the right direction. But it has enormous pedagogical value: I can almost feel the neurons in the students’ brains sparking as they make the necessary connections. With repeated training, these neurons fire more effectively.

This approach can be jarring at first. There’s a period of silence that inevitably follows a well-crafted question, and your temptation will be to jump in with an answer. Resist “rescuing” the other person by offering your solution to them. In delivering a quick-fix, you’re acting like a personal trainer who helps a client by lifting their weights. With enough mental bench presses, the student will eventually become the master.

Examples, you ask? Here are a few:

Instead of saying “Here’s how you do that,” ask “How would you solve this problem?”

Instead of saying “Here’s why you should hire me,” ask “What would make this relationship a home run for you?”

Instead of saying “Here’s why my product, service, or business is awesome,” ask “What exactly are you looking for?”

This doesn’t mean you completely shun affirmative statements. It simply means that you resist the initial instinct to give advice or deliver an assertive pitch and begin the discussion with a series of questions instead.

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