Asking the question

‘Who, how, what, why, where, when?’…

There was a time when I worked as a national sales manager for a major company. I had been employed as their transport manager, running the fleet of lorries and coordinating the  complex delivery of portable buildings and unusual cargoes. I loved that job and, as I was talking to suppliers and customers all day, I also managed to drum up a fair bit of business. Once the scale of this was noticed, I was promoted, kicking and screaming, to sales manager. In spite of the undoubted perks of company cars, technology and the open road, I really preferred transport. The business I had brought in came from the trust and friendships I had been able to build over the years with people. Sales is a different game.

Even with the shiny badge of official seniority, employees were not left to their own devices. We were regularly hustled off to training days where, amongst other techniques, the art of the open-ended question was drummed into us, like it or not. In sales, you have to get people talking and keep them talking. There are even studies and figures that map how long you need to keep someone chatting before they will actually listen to a sales pitch with any chance of buying. The open-ended question is designed to do just that.

The principle is simple, never ask anything that can be answered with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’… always require a conversational answer… and preferably one that gives you, the salesperson, some insight into how their mind and business works. The question can be the same, but its effectiveness is all in the phrasing.

“Do you have a moment to discuss how we could save your company  money?” Yes…and suddenly you need another question. No…and the phone goes down. “How much of your current budget for ‘x’ would you like to save?” Conversation+ information and they are talking… Not that you would lead with such questions, but you get the idea.

After several years in sales, the contrived and deliberate nature of whole thing put me off asking questions entirely, though I never mind answering them.

On Saturday, I was a guest on Sally Cronin‘s blog and it was all about questions. Sally’s idea is great… present the writer and their work, ask a few questions, then throw the comments open for questions too. I had no idea how that would go, but expected the odd question or two when the post went out…and that would be about it. Last time I looked, there were over  hundred and twenty comments, including the responses, and the questions asked were all interesting ones. They continued to come in over the weekend and, by the end of it, I for one felt that I knew my fellow bloggers a little better, even though the questions were aimed at me.

What struck me as really odd, though, is why those questions should only come when specifically asked for. I am here, online, every day. I post a fair few articles, both here and at the Silent Eye. Yet, although there are wonderful comments, few people ask questions.

I had a think about that. To begin with I just assumed that it might be because I write fairly openly about so many aspects of my life. Then I realised that actually, when I leave a comment, I seldom ask questions either… which is probably still a hangover from my years in sales.

I suppose it is partly a cultural thing too. Politeness dictates that we should not pry or seem too inquisitive. Maybe it is partly the ‘disconnect’ of the internet, where we are not face to face over a coffee and really able to get to know each other.

Then there is the other aspect of asking a question… we don’t usually enjoy admitting that there are things we don’t know. With, say, a fellow blogger, should you know already, when you have been reading their posts? Will it make you look as if you weren’t paying attention? Or as if you are being nosey? Or… well, there are a whole host of other reasons why asking the question might feel… awkward.

Children, being far less self-conscious, don’t care about any of that. The ‘why’ stage is familiar to anyone who has ever cared for a small child. It is an insistent and immediate need for a knowledge that will expand their understanding. What they do not know, they seek from the closest source of knowledge…and as far as a child is concerned, grown-ups know everything and bombarding them with a constant stream of questions is the fastest way to fill the gaps in the understanding that allows them to move through the world.

The trouble is that we don’t know everything. I spent several years helping to raise a tiny French girl. She spent most of her waking hours with me and we walked all over the countryside with her constantly asking  me the names of everything we saw. What I didn’t know, I would have to look up very quickly in the dictionary I carried everywhere…teaching the child her own language, I learned it fast.

These days, we have the internet at our fingertips almost everywhere we go. Facts and research are seldom more than a tap or two away… knowledge is more accessible than ever before and the gaps in our own are easy to fill. I wonder sometimes if that is a good thing for human relationships. We no longer need to ask another human being as much of the time, the ‘higher authority’ of the internet allows us to bypass such interaction and avoid that ‘awkward’ feeling. Even online, instead of asking a writer what they mean, for example, we may just look up someone else’s interpretation… when maybe asking the question and thinking about it ourselves might open a wider understanding and more paths to explore as well as potentially building a relationship with the writer.

While knowledge is accessible, understanding grows from the experience of living with that knowledge. It cannot be found with a search engine nor transmitted from mouth to ear. Even so, we can ask the questions of others that will aid us in our quest for understanding and can learn much from their experience. We also have another resource… a lifetime of experience and the depths of being upon which we can draw to gain understanding; if we ask with the silent voice of the heart we may be answered from within.

Where there are gaps in knowledge, where we do not comprehend what we see or read or when we seek to deepen understanding, it matters little whether we use our voices, our fingertips or the whisper of the heart… it all has to start with asking the question.

 

About Sue Vincent

Sue Vincent is a Yorkshire-born writer and one of the Directors of The Silent Eye, a modern Mystery School. She has written a number of books, both alone and with Stuart France, exploring ancient myths, the mysterious landscape of Albion and the inner journey of the soul. She is owned by a small dog who also blogs. Follow her at scvincent.com and on Twitter @SCVincent Find her books on Goodreads and follow her on Amazon worldwide to find out about new releases and offers. Email: findme@scvincent.com
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68 Responses to Asking the question

  1. Wonderful post, Sue – but the banner photo took my breath away. Question (lol) did you take it?
    xx,
    mgh

    Liked by 1 person

  2. jenanita01 says:

    I usually ask a load of questions, wherever I am, but there is something about the internet that tends to shy away from doing that. You are probably right in saying it’s because we don’t want to be seen as nosey or a pest. Which is a shame, for how else we do we learn?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sue Vincent says:

      Exactly… we cannot learn unless we question, but the internet does seem a different beast. I wonder if it is because we can’t always ‘read’ the openness or otherwise of the person we are speaking to?

      Liked by 2 people

  3. fransiweinstein says:

    Interesting post Sue. I also think that the act of asking questions requires that we spend time reading more carefully, deciding which questions to ask and then waiting for the answer — which then has to be read, etc etc. Most people today are under such time constraints (or we think we are) that we don’t invest the time in becoming fully engaged. we do everything on the fly, we communicate in soundbites and it’s getting to the point that anything over 140 characters is too much for us to digest.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Sue Vincent says:

      I am afraid you may be right, Fransi, yet taking that time is the only way we can really draw our own conclusions rather than accepting what we are spoon-fed within those 140 characters.

      Liked by 3 people

      • fransiweinstein says:

        I totally agree with you. I think we have lost a lot, including curiosity and intimacy. We deal on a superficial level because we don’t spend enough time digging deep.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Sue Vincent says:

          And yet, you know, I don’t see how we can be fully human without either of those qualities. It makes you wonder what we are losing in the longer term.

          Liked by 2 people

          • fransiweinstein says:

            Again I agree with you. I think we are losing a lot, in the short and long term. Without curiosity we will become intellectually lazy, for one thing. And speed-thinking, speed-reading and speed-communicating mean we never really get to know each other, we never get the whole picture on anything and we’re never fully informed. I find it quite a depressing thought. I love Google, I love the Internet and I love how quickly and easily I can get answers and do research when I legitimately have a deadline. But for me there’s nothing more satisfying than losing all sense of time when I’m involved and engaged in a story or a conversation or I’m on a quest for information.

            Liked by 1 person

  4. Lovely post, I too despise the contrived world of sales. I am far too tuned into right, wrong and people’s emotions. Sales just feels like deception to me, it makes me uncomfortable.

    I completely agree with your reasoning in questions. I think in the blogosphere it’s difficult to ask probing questions without having the person in front of you to judge their reaction. Have you offended them? Hit a sore spot? Made them uncomfortable?

    I do wish people would ask questions in blog comments, it encourages conversation and often makes you consider facets of your work you’d previously ignored. I’m going to try to ask more questions. Thanks Sue 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    • Sue Vincent says:

      Not all sales people are as the archetypes paint them…in fact, the best are those who do listen and provide a service that actually does help in some way. But that seems designed now to become a thing of the past in many businesses and it is all about figures and commission.

      I agree, that personal touch is very hard to read without body language and a pair of eyes to help understanding, but the beauty of the internet, and especially blogging, is that comments can be avoided fairly easily if they do touch a raw spot. Questions help us learn about each other and that has to be a good thing 😉

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Reblogged this on Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life and commented:
    Sue Vincent was my guest for Book Reading at the Cafe and both of us were delighed by the number of really interesting questions that were contributed by those who read the post. Sue has written a follow up piece asking if our ability to question as a form of communication has changed with the advent of the Internet. #recommended

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks Sue for being a great guest and I am delighted that you were inundated… sometimes people just need permission. I do sometimes say at the end of the post that I welcome questions but I am going to make a point of doing it all the time. People are naturally wary about their own privacy online and I think that does impact their approach to asking questions even of a non-personal subject.. anyway great job this weekend. x

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sue Vincent says:

      Thanks, Sally, I thoroughly enjoyed myself this weekend 🙂
      We tend to assume that we are giving permission by writing openly, but I think you are right that it sometimes need to be explicit rather than implicit. x

      Liked by 2 people

  7. olganm says:

    Thanks, Sue. Good question, indeed. As a psychiatrist, asking questions was second nature and I sometimes found myself going down the path of interrogating somebody as if they were a patient. Some people, once they knew what I did for a living, would think that I was trying to analyse them and become weary of answering anything. I wonder if the idea that we might incriminate ourselves by anything we ask (or yes, look stupid) might have a lot to do with it. But the fact that we can just pull a phone and check something (even if the source of information is suspect) has not done much for conversation for sure. Thanks!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Soul Gifts says:

    I too was trained to ask open ended questions in my mental health nursing and counselling training. It was an essential skill to have at work and of course is one of those that is ‘portable to any situation’. I always read the comments after posts – they are so interesting and can add unexpected breadth and depth to the subject or go off on interesting tangents 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Reblogged this on Words To Captivate ~ by John Fioravanti and commented:
    Do you ask questions when you leave a comment? Author and blogger, Sue Vincent, presents a thought-provoking article about the art and practice of asking questions.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Such an interesting thought here, and I do think it might have something to do with time constraints. I love the conversational aspect of blogging comments, but I noticed recently that when someone commented on an older post, I anticipated the question and answered it before they had a chance to ask. I used the phrase….”so that you don’t have to Google, here’s the info.” It seemed like I was deliberately drawing the “back and forth” to a close.
    p.s. I did detect your preference for the work before the promotion. Everyone thinks that your professional life gets better, but that is not always the case. It happened to me as well. For a later post ??? Thanks, Sue.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Sue Vincent says:

      It is very easy to put a fill stop to a conversation before it begins online, and some comments don’t really leave anything open for starting one…but I do enjoy talking 😉

      Yes, I loved working with the drivers and sites… not so much with the sales end of things. Especially as, when I was selling the service I was organising myself, I knew I could deliver. Once I ceased to be the transport manager, the role was shred around the office and the staff often didn’t deliver…so I was selling a srvoce over which I had no control and could not guarantee. I really didn’t want the ‘promotion’, but wasn’t given much option on it at the time.

      Liked by 2 people

  11. I love asking questions. I always used to sit at the front of my lecture hall and ask questions. Now, when I go to training sessions, I like to ask all the questions that I have about a given topic – often questions that I have thought about in advance. Some lecturers react well to it and some do not.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sue Vincent says:

      I don’t see how we can expect to learn much without asking questions, even if we never voice them but ask them of our fingertips or books. I do know what you mean though about those who ask for questions and then seem offended when you ask them 😉

      Liked by 2 people

  12. paulandruss says:

    Great post Sue and a really interesting lively discussion it engendered too. Enjoyed all of it

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I love asking questions. It shows people you’re interested in them. Unless it’s your children. They think you’re interrogating them…

    Like

  14. Mary Smith says:

    This is a thought-provoking post, Sue. Sometimes, I ask a question but don’t receive an answer (not on your blog, I hasten to add). It’s as though the person has put up the post, liked the comments, said thanks and moved on without actually noticing someone asked something! Other times, I don’t get a notification that the blogger has responded to my comment or question so there are sometimes obstacles to the process of of question and answer. There’s also the problem of which the particular WordPress theme is used as some onf them don’t allow more than one or two replies – which resultas in rather stilted discussions with an abrupt end point. And if I start to follow a new-to-me blogger it does take me a while to work out how open the person is to questions and discussion. That’s also true when meeting someone new in a live situation but the body language helps speed things up. Much to think about.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sue Vincent says:

      Quite a few themes seem to do that, Mary, though I think the number of comments can be altered in the settings. The email notifications of comments usually give an option to continue, as does the drop down thingy top right. When it bothers letting you know there has been a response at all…
      It is frustrating when the very technology that is supposed to be about communication stunts its growth.
      When I visit a new blog, I generally go through the comments …you can get a fair idea of who’ll talk and who won’t that way 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      • Mary Smith says:

        I must look and see if I can change the settings for the Goldfish blog because it’s frustrating when I can’t respond to someone’s second comment with anything other than a like.
        I usually read the comments on a post – sometimes, though, if I arrive late there is a duanting number and if I am one of the first to comment I don’t always go back. I guess we’re all having to find our way in this brave new world of blogging!

        Like

        • Sue Vincent says:

          I often tick the ‘subscribe to comments’ box on good discussions. I may not always join in, but I like to lurk and read 🙂

          Try going into settings discussion and upping the number on ‘Enable threaded (nested) comments’.I have mine set at seven, which generally covers it

          Liked by 1 person

  15. Widdershins says:

    I’m usually too gobsmacked by the gorgeousness of your posts, particularly the standing-stone-people ones, to formulate more than an awed mumble! 🙂 … having said that, I’ll keep the question thing in mind.

    Like

  16. dgkaye says:

    Excellent thought here Sue. There are a myriad of reasons we may not ask questions, many which you have covered here. But the strongest part I agree with here is that the internet has taken away much of the ‘personal touch’ and human interaction, particularly when it comes to socializing. And you also touched on another big point, often if people haven’t followed a blog regularly they may not be caught up to speed on a topic which may have been previously discussed and don’t want to seem as though they hadn’t been paying attention. I think you covered it well. 🙂 ❤

    Like

  17. We are living in a world where questions aren’t asked because too many people are afraid to hear answers. Not only here, but there and everywhere.

    Like

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