Ask Questions

Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.
Voltaire

I reported to my submarine after completing four years at the Naval Academy and another 1½ years of nuclear power training and submarine school. I figured I had all the answers, or at least that I was expected to have all the answers.

All submarine officers have to complete qualifications after they get to their ship. These qualifications are specific to the ship, and require that you learn all the different compartments and operations. You study the material and are then quizzed by Chief Petty Officers (CPO) or Officers, like the Engineer or Navigator, who sign off on your qualifications after you demonstrate adequate knowledge. After you complete all of your qualifications (typically a 1-2 year process), you are allowed to wear the coveted gold dolphins insignia on your uniform.

Early in my time onboard, I was working on qualifying in the torpedo room. The CPO in charge of the torpedo room was very proud of his space and his people. He wanted everyone who qualified in his torpedo room to be well versed. I was struggling with his questions and resorted to making up answers, since I was afraid to display my ignorance. To my relief, he seemed to accept my answers and finally signed my book.

Three years later, as I was leaving the ship, I went to the torpedo room CPO to say goodbye. He said, "Lieutenant Rex, I didn't respect you very much when you first came to the ship. You pretended to know more than you did. But, during your time onboard, you learned to admit what you didn't know and ask questions. I respect you for that, and I'm sorry to see you go."

This was a great learning for me, although I often forgot the lesson and reverted back to my old behavior when I was put in new situations. Over time, I determined a few reasons why other people (and I) often don't ask questions:

People are afraid to admit that they don't know something that they are supposed to know.
This was my issue on the submarine. I would like to say that, from that point on, I never tried to fake it and I always asked questions, but I can't. I've had to learn over the last twenty years that it is okay to admit what you don't know, and people respect you more, not less, when you ask questions. As a leader, the people who follow you particularly like it when you ask them how they do their job. It reverses the power dynamic, with the employee demonstrating his expertise and value.

They don't have enough knowledge to ask a question.
There are many questions that can be asked in any situation. A great booklet that I have carried and used for years is Asking to Win! by Bobb Biehl. Biehl provides questions for a variety of situations, including getting to know someone better, interviewing, brainstorming, decision-making, organizing, planning and parenting. He presents the most powerful question as Why?. . . Why? . . . Why? . . . Why? and the ideal question as "What is the ideal?" I have particularly used his questions in the section on career change to confirm or reject different job opportunities.

Preparation is also crucial in asking good questions. If you are meeting with someone or interviewing at a company, always do your homework and be prepared to ask specific questions. When I have interviewed with executives at a company, I have prepared one-page sheets for each person that I am meeting. The sheets have specific questions related to their area (e.g., finance, operations, marketing) based on the research I have done on the company. The sheet also has several more general questions that I ask everyone (e.g., "What is the one thing that you would do to make the company better?"). This is an efficient way to capture valuable information and keep everything straight after multiple interviews.

They are hoping someone else will ask the question.
Many people won't ask questions due to shyness, laziness, insecurity or pride, and are more than happy to "delegate" that responsibility to others. Some are inhibited by childhood memories of parents telling them to "Stop asking so many questions!" Yet, if you can overcome these fears and inhibitions, you can stand out and be remembered as a person who asks great questions and gains useful knowledge.

Surpassing people practice the art of questioning, combining preparation, boldness and humility in a powerful mix to satisfy their curiosity and attain wisdom.

Action Points
• Don't fake it. Admit what you don't know and ask questions.
• Learn general questions that apply to many situations.
• Prepare yourself to ask specific questions.
• Recognize and overcome any anxiety you have about asking questions.

Payoff
Constant learning, greater knowledge, a reputation of curiosity and boldness

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