Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, July 29, 2019
I think Adam Grant is a rock star. He is a professor at Wharton and is the author of one of the great entrepreneur books, “Give and Take.” I am not going to summarize it. Just trust me, buy it and read it.
Grant also writes a regular newsletter to which you can subscribe. In a recent issue, he revisited one of my favorite subjects — asking questions. I love asking questions, and I am (usually) genuinely interested in the answers. Grant tells the story of having dinner with a friend. On the way home, Grant recalls that in three hours of conversation, the friend “posed a grand total of zero questions.” In a previous dinner with another friend, the exact same thing happened for two hours. Not a single question. Grant makes the point that his two friends had excellent social skills, but they did not understand “when to do what they do best.” Key word is “when.”
While that egocentric behavior might have been expected from “a pair of self-absorbed narcissists,” Grant says that neither friend was that way normally, so what is the behavior anomaly? They were both “dynamic speakers” with strong resumes and accomplishments. They were in demand as keynotes. On stage, they took questions; they didn’t ask them. So it was natural for them to “perform” and dominate the conversation.
This question thing is nuanced. After a long lunch with a new acquaintance, I got an email telling me how delightful it was to meet me and how interesting and enjoyable the interaction had been. Like Grant I clearly noted that I was never asked a question about myself. No wonder he liked lunch; it was all about him.
What you find here is twofold. On the one hand, you know that people like to opine, pontificate, explain, impress and generally like to talk. So in a first meeting or meal with someone, I often play to their natural comfort zone, allowing them to have the microphone. I usually start an interaction with an unstructured question, designed to engage the other person, to allow them to go in any direction they desire. After all, we are meeting to see if there is a mutual synergy.
But, a slightly darker side to questioning (like a detective) is that it can also be used as controlling mechanism. Each answer naturally leads to a follow-up question. I am quite content to “keep hitting the ball back” until we have finished the meal or the meeting. But unlike a tennis match, I am not interested in dominating or hitting a winner, nor do I feel the need to personally reveal, rather I try to extend the point, looking for the intersection of mutual interests, allowing one answer to build upon another while I continue to probe for the right place to engage.
Grant cites a study in which 1,500 managers were rated by their coworkers on four leadership behaviors: “taking charge, empowering others, creating a vision and executing.” More than half of the managers were cited as “overdoing” one leadership behavior, and it was predictably the one in which they were strongest. Naturally, when we are in a new or uncomfortable situation, we usually default to our personal strong suit (going for the big serve ace), but Grant suggests that the key is to figure out the right time — knowing when to drop the bomb and where.
I am curious by nature. I like learning about people and things. I can be in an elevator, strike up a conversation with someone and by the time we hit the ground floor, I will know the person’s marital status, children, job, divorce and what he does for a living. Given an audience, people like to talk.
I do not have any special agenda in the random interactions, but one of the reasons I ask questions is that as an investor and a CEO, I am always looking for talent, for a “match,” for a connection that might not normally be revealed. You don’t know what you don’t know — and the best way to open a door is to knock.
Rule No. 620