The Question Advantage: The Secret to Asking More Than You Answer

Google Executive Chairman and former CEO Eric Schmidt once said, “We run this company on questions, not answers.”

The sentence seems counterintuitive at first, doesn’t it? But I love what it’s about: the power of questions.

I’ve always believed there’s a massive advantage to being an asker of questions. As Schmidt implies, questions are more productive than answers. Questions keep you looking for answers. They’re the real drivers of action and initiative.

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Questions are the catalysts that lead to continued innovation, true felt needs, and new areas of opportunity. Not to mention, they build trust and rapport like nothing else.

There’s a massive advantage to asking more questions than you answer. This is true in almost every arena in life. Here are a few examples:

In a business meeting: When I’m with a client, I generally ask tons of questions. If it’s our first meeting, I want to know everything about their history, their services, how their story evolved. It all informs the long-term brand and gives invaluable insight into their goals and heart. Even in strategy meetings after years of partnership, I ask questions. When done well and thoughtfully, putting questions on the table adds more value than almost anything else. Inquiries that open doors of opportunity and drive innovation are key.

When networking: I don’t love the term “networking,” but you know what I mean–in those one-on-one interactions with colleagues and new business relationships, I always try to ask more questions than I answer. Whether I’m asking about their kids or their revenue model is beside the point. Asking questions takes the spotlight off of me and puts it on them. Not only does this put me in a position of humility, but it’s a killer way to build strong trust and rapport. Everyone loves to talk about themselves, right? Friendships are quickly and easily made through authentic inquiry, and then I can use that information to follow up and find connection down the road.

Here’s another thing about questions in networking. I’ve learned that many times, the people in my industry are smarter than I am. Or they know everything about a particular niche that’s new to me. There’s no better way to learn than by asking the rockstars in your market to share their knowledge with you. Don’t assume you know. Ask and ask and ask. I did this when I first jumped into publishing, and it prepared me for success more than anything else.

With my staff: We typically think of a leader as being the one to answer the questions, not ask them–but I want to train my employees to think strategically, to acknowledge and chase down the questions our clients will ask, to learn to think through their own questions before they rattle them off to me in Slack. So, I ask. I ask what they were thinking when they wrote that copy, or what their strategy was when they chose that design. I hire smart people, so instead of critiquing through a lens of “my way or the highway,” I ask questions to see into their minds and also to train them to be questioners themselves.

With family: I recently sat down with my 80-something year old grandpa and asked him a few thoughtful questions. He’s often a closed book; it’s hard to get him talking–but on this particular day, I’d really chosen the questions carefully, and the response was awesome. He told me about pieces of our family’s history that I feel so privileged to know. There’s something precious about family, about knowing where we come from. Inevitably, it dictates where we’re going, and it taps into a pride and a root system that’s so important. More and more in our all-digital culture, the temptation is there to visit with grandparents or parents and just stay on the surface. I’d encourage you to ask questions that go deep.

This year, I am more aware than ever of the questions I ask and I answer within each conversation I have. Questions honor a person and build trust; that alone is a worthy end goal. Yet, there’s an additional advantage to be found: knowledge. Whether personally or professionally, be forever learning. Consider people your most valuable asset for the development of your business and yourself. Put the spotlight on someone else, and soak up the words they say. You’ll be glad you did.