Last week, someone tried to steal my money. Before she could run off, I caught her in the act and fought her off. My weapon? A simple question.
Now before you imagine any grand scenes of my fighting crime on the streets of San Francisco, let me explain. I was on the phone with an agent, signing up for renter’s insurance. I had already completed an online interview and received a quote of $10.83 per month. The next and final step was for me to talk with an insurance representative who would “help me get the coverage I need.” So as we talked on the phone to make it all official, I naturally assumed that she was on my side—there for me like a good neighbor. Finally, it came time to pay.
“You’re total is one hundred and thirty dollars,” she said.
“What?” Not one for mental math, I felt like the number had come out of nowhere.
“Of course you can also pay monthly,” she said, leaving me to infer that the first number was annual.
“I think I’ll go monthly,” I said. I like to track my monthly purchases, and a recurring item on my credit card statement would be a good reminder.
“Okay. You’re total is $12.83.”
“Huh?” Neither mental math nor some taps on my calculator app could explain this one. I knew I would need to ask if I wanted an answer. “How are these amounts being determined?”
“There is a two-dollar setup fee for the first month.”
“Great. So then next month it would be $10.83?”
“No it would be $11.83.”
“Wait what?!” A third number. This was too much. I was feeling less and less assured by the minute. “Can you help me understand this?”
“Well, there is a one dollar service charge each month when you pay monthly.”
Aha! Caught you! Aha aha aha. Our conversation had been like a wrestling match and I had pinned her down. “But there are no additional fees if I pay annually?”
“That’s correct.” I chose the annual payment plan and hung up feeling like I had saved a million bucks (when really I had saved about twelve).
Asking that one simple question had invited the agent to unpack their payment structure (probably one that she is encouraged not to explain) and allowed me to make a more educated decision.
I haven’t always been a questions-asker. I know now that “there is no bad question” and that “chances are someone else has the same question,” but for most of my life, questions were a bad thing. I feared them.
Questions were those things that my mom asked when she didn’t believe what I was saying. They were the things you asked when I was being disobedient (“but why?”). Questions were what those dumb kids asked the teacher when they didn’t understand what she was saying (but everyone else did).
Over time, these cues taught me that questions were not constructive or collaborative. They were cavilling.
The pinnacle of my question-fearing came senior year of college. I was preparing for my thesis presentation, which would consist of a one-hour session where I would share my findings then answer questions from the department. In addition to practicing my talk, I spent hours praying that nobody would ask any questions. What if I don’t know the answer? It’ll make my thesis look weak. What if I don’t have an answer? It’ll destroy my thesis.
If you’ve ever been in a presentation of research findings, you know that my prayers went completely unanswered. Oh were there questions. I didn’t know the answers to some (“I can certainly look into that,”) but for most, there were no answers to begin with (“These findings can’t answer that”).
When we debriefed my presentation a few days later, I started out by apologizing to my advisor. “I messed up in the Q&A,” I said. “I should have been more prepared.” My advisor looked at me sternly.
“What are you saying? People only asked questions because they were interested in what you were talking about. If they didn’t care, they wouldn’t have asked questions. I thought it was a good conversation. Based on the energy in the room, I’m thinking we should do a follow-up study.”
It was with this conversation that I first reconsidered my beliefs around questions-asking.
As I’ve transitioned into my professional life, I’ve come to rely on questions as a sort of currency: They demonstrate the extent to which people are invested in what you are saying. When leaders participate in meetings, the best ones—the ones that seem to care the most—ask questions. When the most effective speakers stand in front of an audience, they leave substantial time for questions.
Today, my life is full of questions, both that I ask and that I answer. I live and breathe questions without which my personal and professional work would be far less stimulating or meaningful.
If you ask me, there are two types of people in this world: Those who ask questions and those who pay an extra twelve dollars in renter’s insurance each year. It hasn’t always been the case, but today, there’s no question I’m the former.
In every situation, push yourself to ask the hard questions. Invite the hard questions from others. Because it’s these questions, not their answers or the answers that you already have, that will make your life a whole lot richer.