This is one of my favorite stories. Isidor Rabi (1898 – 1988) was a Polish-born American physicist and Nobel laureate. He was recognized in 1944 for his discovery of nuclear magnetic resonance, which is used in magnetic resonance imaging. When asked if there were any significant influences on his life, he said, “My mother made me a scientist without ever intending to. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child, “So? Did you learn anything in school today?” But not my mother. “Izzy,” she would ask, “did you ask a good question today?” That difference – asking good questions – made me become a scientist. (As quoted in “Great Minds Start with Questions” in Parents Magazine, September 1993). The lesson I learned is profound and forms the basis of my work.
Izzy’s mother got it. She understood that asking questions is about engaging in meaningful dialogue.
I wish I knew about Izzy and his mother when I started my first job after graduate school. One of the managers where I worked took me under his wing and gave me two pieces of advice I’ll never forget.
- During your first few months on the job, don’t impress the employees with how much you know. Don’t offer up solutions or suggestions. Just ask questions. Ask as many questions as you can to as many employees as you can.
- When you are walking around the office, always carry a yellow pad with you.
There are two reasons to do this. The first is that it would not look good to others to walk around the office empty-handed. After all, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” You need to appear as though you’re doing something work-related. When you ask a question, surreptitiously write down what others said. Keep this list handy and use it as a reference when you would be in a position to answer questions.
From that point on, I never stopped asking questions.
Here’s a brief example of how to ask questions in a business situation. A customer asks you a question about your product or service or states a frustration. Instead of trying to answer the question or solve the problem, the very first thing you do is to take their question or their stated frustration, throw it back to them, and ask for clarification. You might say, “What exactly do you mean?” “Tell me more about this.” “Can you clarify your question?” Sometimes, people just want to be heard and are not looking for solutions. By asking questions, you’ll begin to engage in a dialogue.
Next time a customer asks a question or states a frustration, start asking questions.