Most people’s first word is “Mama.” Mine was “Why?”
As kids, we’re hardwired to be curious. As we get older, we start to rely more heavily on what we know (or what we think we know). After all, experience builds competence—and confidence—in our decision making. One of the biggest challenges for many adults, and for many companies, is to recognize that no matter how much experience you may have, the most meaningful insights typically happen when you’re able to remain curious.
As a market researcher, I’ve made a career out of asking questions. But without genuine curiosity—and a desire to really understand the audience—we can end up simply reinforcing our preconceived ideas about ourselves, our competitors, or our customers. To cut through our own assumptions and understand what’s really driving people’s emotions and behaviors, I always come back to the power of “Why?”
Here’s an example of why asking the right kinds of questions makes all the difference.
When my son Derek was only three years old, my husband Jim and I decided to take Derek on a trip to Disney World. Jim was excited to ride Space Mountain, and we discovered that Derek could join us if he sat between us. The three of us embarked on the popular ride, not knowing that Space Mountain’s main conceit was its complete darkness. While it turned out to be a thrilling, if slightly scary, experience for me, I was concerned about how the ride had felt to our three-year-old.
Jim was quick to assure me that Derek had thoroughly enjoyed it. He bent down to our son’s level and asked, "Derek, that was fun, wasn't it?" Derek nodded in agreement. Jim continued with more questions, asking if the ride was fast and if Derek liked riding between mommy and daddy. Derek responded with more nods of approval. Filled with pride, Jim confidently looked at me and declared, "See, I told you he loved it!"
In that moment, I realized that (despite his best intentions), Jim had asked Derek the wrong questions. I leaned down to his level and asked, "Derek, would you like to ride Space Mountain again?" Suddenly, Derek's eyes welled up with tears, and he started sobbing, repeatedly saying, "No, mommy, I don't want to!" I quickly followed up with, "Why don't you want to ride it again?" Derek sobbed, "I'm ASCARED of the dark!"
It became clear that despite his initial affirmative responses, Derek had no desire to experience it again. In other words, he didn’t “LOVE it” at all.
It’s a personal example, but a vivid depiction of what can happen in any kind of conversational exchange. People often simply say what they think we want to hear. Why? It’s the path of least resistance. It may feel easier or safer than digging into the real answer. For my son, he clearly wanted to please his parents, by giving Jim the answer he was looking for. But when asked a different way, his true feelings came pouring out.
Asking the right questions opens the gateway to deeper understanding, meaningful connections, and transformative insights. By cultivating a curious mindset and honing our inquiry skills, we unlock new possibilities, challenge assumptions, and navigate life's complexities with greater clarity and purpose.
When you have the courage to remain curious about others and take time to ask the right questions and listen carefully, you’ll get the insights you need to connect with the minds and hearts of your customers like never before.