Clients of mine will recognize these four words instantly.
It is my belief that nearly every question asked of you, in almost every situation, should be answered with these four words. Circumstances and context will determine if you should answer the specific question first, and then use the magic four words, or use the four words even before answering the question.
I promise: if you adapt this as a practice, you will change the course of your career. Quite possibly your life. And you will be a better friend, a better partner to your spouse, and a far better parent.
I came to this insight the hard way. I missed opportunities, derailed potential partnerships, and slowed potential sales… sometimes fatally. I count my failures in both professional situations, and personal ones.
And like so many practices, just because I have learned the importance of this practice… doesn’t mean it is easy. I have found that I must constantly practice this art, this method… in each important conversation.
Why Do You Ask?
The practice of asking that question — just four short words — is the key to unlocking what is in the depth of a question. And it leads to real conversations, which in turn will have depth.
This practice invokes several key attributes of a high-quality conversation with another person:
- Respect for the questioner, that their question matters
- Active listening
- A suspension of your arrogance or hubris
You gain all four of these attributes when you answer the question… and ask why they asked the question. There is almost always a question behind the question.
For example, when a potential employee asks about the health benefits offered in your company, do you leap to answer with the facts about the program, either in an elegant summary or a detailed comprehensive answer… before asking why? The question may indeed be innocuous and literal… or it may be because the candidate turned down a recent job offer because the benefits were inadequate. Wouldn’t you like to know that before you answered, or before they leave the meeting?
In a similar situation, I often see entrepreneurs launch into a defensive answer about their product pricing with little more than an innocent question from a prospect who says “What about pricing?” They miss the opportunity to understand the basics of the question — indeed there may be a concern about pricing, but its also possible that the real information is that the potential customer is at the earliest stages of research and seeks ballpark pricing for a budget request for next year, or the year after. The context of the question may affect how you answer.
You see, almost everyone avoids asking the real question they want to ask. Or they don’t want us to know why they’re asking, out of habit or strategy. For many reasons they either overtly or subconsciously cloak the true basis of their question with… a polite question.
People blessed by nature or nurture with a high “EQ” (Emotional Quotient) understand that the first step to depth in a relationship, even a first-time business meeting, is empathy. And that empathy is in part about seeing the situation from the other person’s perspective. It is emphatically not about providing the other person with facts, an opinion, or the right answer. Slow down, and make sure you understand the question from their perspective. Why Do You Ask?
Engineers, analytic minds, and those who were straight-A students in school are often drawn into a question, hearing it as a literal, formal question, and leaping to answer it. They’ve been waiting for “good questions”! You can almost see them waving their arm in a desperate attempt to get the teacher to call on them, so they can demonstrate their mastery of the topic, and provide the correct (and often numbingly comprehensive) answer.
I blame the American culture and education system, where “getting an A”, being right, and “achieving” is supposedly the ultimate in self-actualization, and in turn has bred this instinct to answer the question quickly and forcefully. Slow down.
Sure, answer the question in as brief a form as possible, and then respect the intelligence and intentions of the questioner with… your own question: “but Why Do You Ask?”
Better yet, pose Why do You Ask? before answering the question at all. Together, you may discover the original question isn’t relevant, or perhaps even distracting.
Be curious, set aside your confidence that you know why they asked (isn’t it obvious?), be humble in the awareness that there may be far more to the question than you could ever know.
In February, 1999 one of the smartest and most accomplished “young” venture capitalists in Silicon Valley agreed to meet with me, as a favor to his colleague and our mutual friend, Ed Kozel, then the recently exited CTO of Cisco. I had just co-founded a venture capital firm, and wanted to expand my network of co-investors. Ed was doing me a big favor; ordinarily a tiny, unproven venture firm from Seattle wouldn’t have had a chance of getting this meeting.
Michael Moritz of Sequoia was as sharp, curious, and engaged as his reputation made him out to be; I knew that I was very lucky to be hosted for the visit in their offices. We were both cordial and comfortable, and it was a pleasant conversation. After I provided a brief summary of my past, we got down to the good stuff — and one of Moritz’s questions was whether there was a future in “search” as a business.
I had just sold my second startup to Infoseek / Walt Disney. Quando was a boutique, customized search technology (we found events such as concerts, and pricing for products used in comparison shopping). I remember thinking to myself “Hey, good question. I mean, I actually know something about this stuff, and I also know that Infoseek has already started to ignore their search engine group… search as a business is almost over.”
I couldn’t tell you exactly what I said, but I know this: it was off the top of my head, I didn’t pause before answering, and I didn’t put much thought into it. In fact, I can’t remember what I said. But I was confident and pushed on, watching to see of what he made of my answer. I will confess, I was eager to impress.
The gist of my answer was: I didn’t think there was much future in search. Moritz asked again, this time asking if paying to be included in the results from a search engine could work as a business. Again, I was dismissive… after all, we couldn’t figure out how to do it, so we hadn’t even tried to charge for search results, and instead we re-sold our search services wholesale to portals like America Online and Disney, which gave the search results away to their users.
Moritz pressed me at least a third time, maybe even a fourth… but I continued to be negative, imagining more dumb banner ads in the manner that they were displayed in 1999… I saw a look cross his face that I didn’t understand, but the meeting soon ended, and I was ushered out the door.
I never spoke to Moritz again, and of course like everyone else, a couple of months later I read about his lead role in the first venture capital investment in a Stanford startup called Google. $25 million invested in search.
Please understand that during the entire meeting I never asked Michael Moritz a single question. I didn’t pose a single Why Do You Ask? to his questions, even when they were repeated. I wasn’t curious, I wasn’t respectful, and I wasn’t really listening. And I wanted an “A” in this class.
In the end, not only did I not really get anything out of the meeting (and neither did he, obviously)… but I missed an opportunity to learn about one of the most explosive business models in human history, from one of the people at the epicenter. I missed the opportunity to deepen my relationship with an individual whom I admired and from whom I could have learned a great deal from in subsequent years. I even disrespected the favor Ed did by arranging the meeting in the first place. I whiffed this ball.
And it was a slow, underhand pitch.
I can give you countless other examples in my personal and professional past where I was too eager to answer the literal question, especially when I knew the answer, and as a result, missed the multiple opportunities that emerge when you are curious.
The thing is, I am curious, to my core. I had the motive, but not the skills or the craft.
Adopt these four words as your practice, and use them both at home and in the office. More than an attractive new habit, dedicate yourself to making this kind of interaction your skill and your craft. And I guarantee you will deepen your relationships and enjoy more opportunities than you otherwise would. Really.
p.s. see my Recommended Reading list for the just-published book To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others by the irrepressible Dan Pink on how this issue relates to sales. An essential tool for all entrepreneurs, as the implications go far beyond what you may think of as “sales”.