‘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.