Last week I riffed on the importance of “what is the question“. This week I will riff on a related topic: “How will the answer affect what you do next?”
If the answer to your question won’t change what you will do, then perhaps you don’t need to ask the question.[1. This I definitely learned in medical school. It was usually phrased, “How will this affect your management?” If you’ve made the decision to prescribe an antibiotic for pneumonia, then there’s no reason to get a chest X-ray. It doesn’t matter what the answer is to the question, “What will we see on the chest X-ray?” Thus, don’t order the X-ray.]
If you know that you friend isn’t the biggest fan of cake, but you’re going to serve cake at the party anyway, there’s no point in asking your friend, “Do you like cake?” or “Do you mind if I serve cake?”
Sometimes we ask questions not because we want to learn the answer, but because we want to say something. In the above example the question “Do you mind if I serve cake?” may actually mean “I hope you won’t feel angry or disappointed that I am serving cake”.
Consider meetings or conferences where audience members have opportunities to ask the speaker questions. Sometimes the people who raise their hands to ask questions either (1) never ask an actual question, or (2) ask a question that they then answer themselves, whether the group wants to hear it or not.
To be clear, I’m not saying that we should never ask questions unless the answer will influence our next actions. Asking questions is how we learn about ourselves and the world around us.
When I first moved to New York from Seattle, many of my colleagues in New York asked me about how much it rains in Seattle.
“It actually rains more in New York than it does in Seattle,” I would reply, sometimes with unnecessary smugness.[2. I do like the Merriam-Webster definition of smug. It makes it clear that it is always annoying and never necessary to be smug.]
The question was, “Does it rain more in Seattle than it does in New York?” The answer was “no”, but it didn’t change anything anyone did. No one moved from New York to Seattle to experience less annual precipitation. It didn’t stop me from moving to New York. I still wore trench coats in both cities (though got one with more style in New York) and covered my head as needed. That there is more annual precipitation in New York is just interesting.
It is nonetheless worthwhile to consider the reasons behind questions you ask. Sometimes the answers to your questions will affect what you do next. Sometimes your questions help you learn more about other people or phenomena in the world. Sometimes your questions address only your own psychological needs, which often has bad outcomes for everyone involved in the conversation (e.g., “Do I look fat in this?” or “Are you getting your period?”).
Be careful what you ask for.