Space Mountain and the Power of Curiosity

A Disney coaster experience was just one test case for strategic insights manager Stephanie Gries. As a market researcher, she’s logged hundreds of hours in conversation with potential customers. (And as a mother, even more hours with her own family.) Collectively, all those talks taught her the power of developing more curiosity in both our professional and personal lives—and she says it all starts with one easy-to-ask question.

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.

It’s one reason I try to practice better question-asking in all areas of my life. Here are some tips you can use in almost any conversation — personal or professional — to uncover what’s really happening.

1. Start with "why, how, what"

These question starters encourage deeper thinking and reflection. For example, rather than ask, “Are you looking for a product to help you do X,” you might ask instead, “Why is it important to have a product that can help you do X.” (By the way, it’s okay to lead with a word like “do” or “what” when you have a strong “why” follow-up question.)

2. Show enthusiasm

Like a curious child asking a question, let your interest show through in your tone, body language, and active engagement. Approach conversations with an open mind, without preconceived ideas of the expected response. Be genuinely curious and eager to learn more.

3. Avoid yes/no questions

Closed-ended questions don’t nudge the respondent to reveal the why. Derek gave Jim those simple “yes” responses, but Jim didn't ask questions that allowed Derek to explain what he was feeling: Fear!

4. Follow their lead

Pay attention to people’s responses and ask follow-up questions based on what they've shared. Active listening helps you better understand their viewpoints and allows for deeper exploration of the topic. Look for non-verbal cues too.

5. Ask for opinions

Encourage the person to share their thoughts and feelings beyond a simple "yes" or "no" response.

6. Avoid leading questions

Don’t craft questions in a way that implies what kind of answer you expect. This is a common mistake made with survey questions. Jim guided Derek to answer the question affirmatively by stating the question, “It was fun, right?”

7. Be mindful of context

Consider the situation and the person you are speaking with. Tailor your questions to the interests, knowledge, and background of your audience to make them more relevant and engaging. As you can imagine, I would ask a three-year-old different questions than a thirty-three-year-old. They have different life experiences and knowledge.

8. Practice active listening

Many times, "listeners” are more focused on what they want to say next instead of truly hearing what the other person is saying. Engage in active listening by genuinely paying attention to their words, thoughts, and emotions. Only then can you respond thoughtfully.

9. Encourage storytelling

Ask questions that prompt narratives. Stories tend to captivate listeners and create connections. For instance, you can ask, "Can you share a time when you faced a significant challenge and how you overcame it?" Stories resonate with people, making conversations more engaging.

the bottom line

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.

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