Asking The Second Question—To Get To The Fifth

Have you ever found yourself watching a televised interview—perhaps with a celebrity, sports figure or eyewitness to an event—and found yourself wanting to reach into the screen, tap the reporter on the shoulder and ask, “Wait. Aren’t you going to follow up on that point?” Or now that political debate season is upon us, have you followed an exchange and realized the moderator isn’t pressing for additional detail beyond canned responses?

I call this phenomenon the failure to ask the second question. Almost everyone does it, and there could be a physiological reason for it. After all, even though the brain only makes up two percent of a person’s weight, it consumes 20 percent of the body’s energy. Toddlers continually ask why, why, why? But as we get older and start to form ideas and beliefs about human behavior and the physical world, it could be a survival mechanism to quickly file away a ready response and move on to the next shiny object, reserving and allocating available energy.

Soundbite culture, however, is not sufficient. The decisions we make do have consequences. In a democracy, isn’t it a core tenant that we’re all policy makers? Doesn’t that mean we have to be as well-informed as possible and continue to develop critical thinking skills?

I challenge myself to ask questions that lead to more questions. As a business leader, if a workforce issue, procurement wrinkle or competitive threat emerges, I absolutely want to hear a topline assessment first. But for the health and well-being of our company, in nearly all cases we’re going to need to dig deeper and keep asking questions to get to root causes.

There’s a quote I like attributed to Voltaire: “Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.” That’s something to take to heart in our professional and personal lives. In fact, according to research by the Harvard Business School, people might even like you more if you ask follow-up questions.

Who? What? When? Why? How? Each is a launchpad for learning. More importantly, every question can inspire action.