My wife Wendy is really good at asking questions. She doesn’t ask them in an annoying way like “You did what?” or “Why can’t you put the lid down?” or “Who let the dogs out?” Instead, she asks them in both a thoughtful and interested way. If you watch her in a conversation, you’ll see someone who really knows how to engage others.
I think most of us probably don’t ask enough questions. I have no research to back this up, and I suppose I could ask, but like many people, I prefer to appear knowledgable rather than show my ignorance in any particular situation. And yet, when I ask more questions and show a little humility, I tend to connect with others in a more human way.
A few weeks ago, I was speaking at a healthcare event on Long Island in New York. I asked the hotel desk clerk to recommend a good sandwich place for lunch. He referred me to a kosher deli. Now, just so you know, I grew up in a small town in the south. As a child, I was not familiar with northern style delis. In fact, I never even had a bagel until I went to college. I remember biting into my first bagel and thinking, “The donuts at this university are horrible.”
I guess I was a bit deprived in a hometown where there were no restaurants, no gas stations, and not one traffic light. And I’m pretty certain there wasn’t a kosher deli anywhere near my house. Thus, the opportunity to get a taste of New York was exciting but just a tad bit intimidating to me.
I walked into the deli and the owner asked, “What will you have?”
Feeling a bit awkward and not wanting to order something that I might regret, I said, “Well, I’m actually from the south and this is the first time I’ve been to a kosher deli. Could you recommend something?”
A man at the end of the counter said, “Well, first of all, you need to know that nothing here comes with a side of grits!”
We all laughed and then the owner walked me through the menu and recommended a few of their most popular sandwiches. He then mentioned that he had recently visited the south and really loved the people and the food. We had a lovely conversation and I left with a good feeling, and a delicious pastrami on rye.
In hindsight, I wondered if the situation progressed a bit more smoothly because I was willing ask a question rather than pretending to know what I was doing when, in fact, I did not.
We’ve all been in those situations where we don’t want to look stupid. Once, a friend of mine was discussing a classic piece of literature he was reading. I had never heard of the book but rather than admit it, I just nodded my head and said “oh, yeah, great book.” In other words, I acted as if I was not only familiar with it but had actually read it. In that situation, I didn’t want to appear stupid and yet I acted like an idiot.
Will Rogers once said, “Everybody is ignorant—only on different subjects.”
It’s a good concept to remember.
Instead of being proud, pretending to know it all, or fearing embarrassment, the act of asking questions can accomplish two things. First, it expands our knowledge. And second, it connects us with others. Let’s briefly consider each of these benefits.
I wholeheartedly believe that one of our goals in life should be to expand our thinking and broaden our perspectives. By understanding in new ways, we can prevent our limited knowledge from becoming a barrier to growth. In the mid 1980’s, when I worked in hospice care, I had the privilege of caring for people with AIDS. It was a tragic situation and many of these individuals, mostly young men, had been shunned by society, by their families, and by some healthcare providers. At that time, we didn’t know a lot about the disease so we were all potentially at risk. Yet, we felt a drive and an obligation to care for these unfortunate souls.
My teammates and I asked a lot questions of our medical colleagues, the infectious disease experts, and anyone who had information that we did not have. We didn’t get every question answered but the inquiries helped us to gain more knowledge than we had on our own. This knowledge made us more comfortable in an uncertain situation and allowed us to provide care to a group of individuals who had become disenfranchised.
Asking questions also helps us to connect with others. When we ask people questions, we show that we’re interested in them. That makes them feel valued. Watch how someone’s behavior changes when you ask them to tell you about their day, their background, or their family. Most people love to share information with someone who is interested. Additionally, if we ask questions about topics we don’t know much about, we not only show our interest, we also show that we’re open to gaining new perspectives. This leads to a better understanding of ourselves and of others. And that, is a very human way of connecting.
So, do you need to ask more questions? (See how I did that?) Probably. When we consider those times when we are frustrated, disconnected, and not sure where to turn, perhaps we need to ask a question. Remember, not only will it help expand our thinking and connect us with others, it’s just the kosher thing to do.