The best questions are not necessarily those that get answers, but those that lead to sharper questions.
My friend Marci Alboher, who writes for the New York Times, often calls me to ask questions about blogging and personal branding. I usually give her strongly opinionated answers and add a little emphasis about how I know that I’m right.
Then she usually does not take my advice. But these are great conversations because she asks really interesting questions – like how do the brand of a journalist and the brand of the publication interact? And my best answers to Marci are when I ask more questions.
Mark Halpern reported in Vocabula (subscription) about a study on expert advice. He says that people who call themselves experts are no better at making predictions about the future than anyone else, but experts talk more confidently about their opinions, and generally don’t get penalized for being wrong.
This makes me think we look to experts more to frame conversation. Experts ask questions similar to those that are burning in our own heads, but the experts ask sharper questions; the answers we can take or leave, but the questions change us.
For example, I ask myself all the time, Am I fat? Do I look good? What number am I on a scale of one to ten? They are insane questions, I know. And there is no good answer. But so what? I ask myself anyway. And sometimes, if I’m feeling comfortable about showing my most pathetic, desperate side of myself, I’ll ask a friend. But to be honest, no answer ever surprises me.
Then I saw Dove’s fun and fascinating video of what it takes to get a woman ready for a billboard photo. I watched three times. I love the video because instead of telling me “don’t worry – you look fine” it implicitly suggests some sharper questions I could be asking. (Hat tip: Indie Bloggers)
And did you know that women’s eyes are digitally enlarged on billboards? This is interesting to me because a man can tell instinctively when a woman is interested in him by the way her eyes dilate, according to Barbara and Allen Pease, authors of The Definitive Book of Body Language. Asking someone if they want to have sex is not usually straightforward and clear, but looking at whether or not her eyes are dilated is a primal way that men sharpen the question.
Here’s another video I love: Did You Know? Shift Happens, by Karl Fisch. This video is fun because I learned so much about how the world is changing. Fisch asks questions and answers them. Here are some examples of those answers:
- If MySpace were a country it would be the 11th most populous in the world (right above Mexico) and the average MySpace page is visited 30 times a day.
- One week of the New York Times is more information than someone would have come across in a lifetime in 1800.
- The department of labor says the top ten jobs that will be in demand in 2010 did not exist in 2004.
One interesting thing about these answers is that they only feel satisfying if you use them to create better questions.
When I encounter someone or something that forces me to ask sharper questions, the first thing I do is check in with myself. Am I excited or scared? I hate having to hear that the world is not what I thought it was. Everyone has cognitive dissonance, even me. But I also would hate to be in a world where nothing changes. And the best thing we can do to keep up is to accept that sharper questions are often more satisfying than quickie answers.