25 Aug
Picture the scene. 

We are sitting opposite each other. I am the seller, and you are the buyer. Or you are the designer, and I am the client. Or I am the consultant, and you are my patient. Or any other business level relationship you may think of. 

We are both busy people and under constraints to move things along. We may in fact be suffering from what I call the 'back2backness culture' that haunts many professions nowadays. That situation that finds our diary compressed into a endless stream of events - meetings, instant messaging, calls - offering little solace for ‘time to think’. Not you? I am jealous. Though not me anymore either. Leaving corporate land was my escape tunnel from this world. 

Anyway back to our meeting. The meeting has gone well, and It seems both of us have got what we needed; from my side, I now have the relevant information about your unmet need, and for you, there is a better grasp of how I might be able to help. 

We are just about to stand up and leave the room when one of us asks of the other this question, 'before we go, what question haven't I asked you that you feel I should be asking?' Keep the thought of this question - I will return to it. 

Some context. 

Lets be honest we are pretty good at asking questions. Asking questions is why we survive. Questions help us gain new information to help us keep moving along. Asking questions ties right back to the fight or flight adrenalin release, when a heard question excites us with the possibility of discovery. But not always. 

We will all remember the feeling of a question coming our way that turns on our inner alert radar as we search for words to deflect the question and return to more comfortable subjects. I am thinking of the classic reporter to politician banter often ending with an exasperated 'just answer the question!!' Questions help foster meaningful connections with others, satisfying curiosity, expressing interest in one another, and promote open communication. Without questions we cannot grow and learn from shared experiences.They are information finders so why do we treat them so badly? 

Questions can be lazy. 

Anyone embarking on developing a research questionnaire or poll will consciously go through a mental exercise of reviewing, amending and reflecting on the questions they are about to thrust upon an unsuspecting audience. Are my questions fair and balanced? Do they encourage an open response or do they create bias towards my point of view? 

This conundrum explains why many surveys and questionnaires are fraught with a challenge full of closed or directed questions that suit the author's purposes more than the respondent. And with technology as our toolset why bother with taking time to consider the other person in a conversation when the 'software' lays the exact questions you need to ask. No more, no less. Ask these 'stock'' questions every time and you will be not only doing your job but also contributing seed data to the greater mission your company faces. 

All quite natural and understandable given mankind's thirst for information collection that harks way back to the days of the census and the Domesday book in the 12th century. But is it ‘good enough’? Surely we can do better? 

Hidden in plain sight. 

A fascination of mine, slowly developing as I age, is the information we can’t see despite it being right in front of our eyes. And the question we don't ask is part of this fascination. 

When was the last time you were asked to complete a form or survey and said to yourself 'I wonder why they didn't ask me about this or that'. Probably never. After all, the task of providing information can be a mix of mind numbingly boring next next next behaviour i.e. tax returns, or purely a means to an end i.e. a survey that will get you a benefit that you want. Neither stimulates a conscious thought about the person asking you the question and what they might have been going through designing the questions to ask you.

In writing this blog I thought I would do a little research. 

Not much to be fair but I did go and ask Chat GPT for its opinion (I know it is a machine). The dialogue is reproduced below. Produced by Chat GPT courtesy of OpenAI The Chat GPT response is interesting though perhaps not at all surprising. 

Asking Why is the panacea of understanding human behaviour and is crucial to anything we do when seeking to satisfy unmet needs. And is possibly the only thing we will never be able to rely on the computers to help us with. Asking Why does not always matter. Given the setting the questions we tend to ask each other may be more transactional - the what, how and when. A traffic police officer will be more interested in collecting facts about an incident and less bothered to ask why someone was speeding or over the limit. Not all of us can work in creative environments where asking Why is metaphorically ‘in the walls’. 

Regardless of our current situation we all probably have a deep-rooted memory of the impact of asking the Why question. Anyone with young children in their life will recall the seemingly incessant questioning 'Why this, why that' and the desperate search for a closing remark to appease the young mind. And whilst we probably cant remember our own ‘Why’ moments I am sure others will! 

Back to my original question. 

'What question haven't I asked you that you feel I should have done'.

On hearing these words what is your response? Do you immediately fire back, 'No, I'm fine' or 'I don't think so', swiftly turning attention to the next task or appointment? Or do you wistfully stop and think what the words are saying to you? Be honest, the former is probably your default behaviour. 

Of course the context of the situation we are in will dictate a lot of this behaviour. Sitting in an A&E triage room with a broken arm may influence your response to questions from a medic. Pain relief is the only thing on your mind, so being asked to consider what question the medic may not have asked you, would be furthest from your mind. But in a business context what would the words mean? Look at how the question is framed and in particular the words, ' that you feel I should have done'. 

By using the words 'you feel', you are being given an opportunity to consider your unmet need. This is important. In a conversation one of us has an unmet need i.e. we need something from the other person because we have identified something is lacking in our situation. For example, If I am in sales then I need more orders and I believe you have a need for what I am selling. Or if you are designing my new home I need to give you as much detail as possible on what I want to see to make my experience positive. 

And too often we shut down our assessment of the unmet need because we are influenced by the other person’s position, the time pressures we face or the extent to which the unmet need affects our direction of travel i.e. how important is resolving this to me? And don't forget bias. If I have sold this product to countless people before you, then I am less likely to want to explore your unmet need because I am confident I already know it! 

Similarly, if I already believe I know what my problem is, then I only want to give you the information that I believe is relevant. I am talking about emotions that is never going to be gained from the surveys, questionnaires or stock questions that surround us. A level of vulnerability in our own understanding of our unmet need that is still possibly unclear or less defined as we would like. So when we hear these words, ''What question haven't I asked you that you feel I should have done", it can have a dramatic effect on our understanding. 

Why is this so important? 

If you are asking the question then there are three outcomes that I have seen work. 
  1. The question shows that you are thinking about the other person.
  2. The question alerts them that you are trying to help them help themselves.
  3. The question suggests there may be more information they could share to help you.
 And if you are being asked the question there are similar outcomes. 
  1. The question challenges you to re-evaluate the information you have given so far and whether they are gaps you still want to share.
  2. The question puts you in the questioner's shoes for a split second and asks, 'why have they asked me that question, do they sense something is missing that might be important to me'. It intrigues us to explore further to seek advantage.
  3. The question provokes you to consider the person asking the question and whether you feel you can trust them sufficiently to give them more information.
 TRUST. The one thing that is always hidden in plain sight when two people are in a conversation. We either have it or we don't. And it is through the words we use that determine whether trust gets stronger or not. A survey or set of stock 'next, next, next' questions will likely suggest a very low trust situation. Someone you trust highly is unlikely to suddenly thrust upon you a page of questions written by someone else and ask you to diligently complete. Whilst someone who simply fires questions at you without any apparent care or attention to your responses will leave you feeling in a really low trust situation. 

So the next time you are approaching the 'back2back' notification to shut down a meeting, try and make it a habit to allow time to ask, 'Ok before we go, what question haven't I asked you that you feel I should have done". 

It just might be the most important question you will ever ask.

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