Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, September 24, 2018
“There is no such thing as a stupid question, only stupid answers” — Colin Powell.
Well, that is a nice sentiment, but we all know that there are stupid questions — like when the television news reporter shoves a microphone in front of a woman whose house has just burned down and asks how she feels.
What really matters is HOW you ask the question. The content of the question matters less than all the associated characteristics of a question, its phrasing, the choice of words, the tonality, the spacing, the pause, the intensity, the feelings, the facial expression, etc.
I went to school in Boston (not the famous one), and I got a degree in English. I went on to write sitcoms, develop real estate and start technology companies. I am convinced that my English degree was both superfluous, worthless and without which, I would have been homeless.
Maurice Schweitzer, a professor at the Wharton School of Business, has done some research in this area and has discovered that “subtle tweaks in the way a question is asked can lead to profoundly different answers.” The underlying heuristic for a question is how you “frame” it. Is it leading, does it have an obvious answer, are you trying to prove that the other fellow is stupid, do you leave an open end for him to expand? For example, a doctor who says, “You don’t use drugs, right?” makes it very hard for the patient to admit he has a substance abuse problem.
Schweitzer gives a simple example. Asking “What is wrong with this car you are selling me” as opposed to “This car doesn’t have any problems, does it?” In the first case, the seller is more inclined to disclose problems. In the second, he blasts along and tells you no problems and by the way, the air-conditioning works great. There is this tension in all interactions to find the right balance of on-the-nose direct words, complete with a declarative statement or accusation versus the dodge-to-the-right lob one off the wall and see what happens. You don’t know what you don’t know — but would like to find out.
Now let’s complicate the puzzle. What if you don’t know what question to ask versus you are an expert in an area and can tell the truth from fiction. If you are well-versed in the subject, you can be more assertive in the question versus “golly, gee whiz, I just got off the bus from Kansas.” And of course there is the double sandbag, where I ask a question to which I already know the answer to see if the other side will tell me the truth.
The truth exists, it is knowable (mostly) and in spite of presidential concerns about fake news, some facts are immutable and real. And the search for truth in a negotiation is critical. Rudy Giuliani says, “truth is not truth,” but that only applies in politics — not in real life.
Schweitzer goes on to explain that “questions not only solicit information, they also reveal information — about our assumptions, about what we know, about the quality of “our cards.” To put it bluntly, words and how we use them really matter. To paraphrase Glengarry Glen Ross, “always be closing” at least implies you know the direction you want the discussion to go.
Another example is the use of presumption. “So, Betty, do you use any of your work time for online gambling?” Whoa, lots of possibilities there. One is that Betty thinks you are a jerk for even suggesting such a thing or Betty says, I don’t gamble, but I do some personal shopping on Amazon while I am at the office. She reveals herself. Schweitzer finds “people are more likely to disclose problems when you presume there is a problem.” When did you stop beating your wife?
Another aspect in a negotiation is to ask a question that allows the other side to “wax eloquent.” It allows him to tell you how smart he is, and then you hook him by playing to his ego. Unlike the famous lawyer rule about only asking questions you know the answer to — in the search for truth, the “stupid question,” properly framed, may turn out to illuminate and reveal a true surprise from the unknown world.
Rule No. 578
Who’s on first?