Here’s Why You Always Ask The Obvious Question

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Photo by Troy Sherk from FreeImagesHow many times does this happen to you?

Someone asks you for help in dealing with another person. It could be a negotiation, it could be to convince them, it might even be to ask them for a favor. You judiciously listen to their plight, absorbing where each party stands and what exactly the person seeking your help wants.

In your mind, you construct a verbal argument carefully built to nudge the other party towards the position sought by your friend. You start by suggesting your associate ask the other person a common-sense question.

You are surprised to see this sage advice is immediately rejected.

“Oh, I already know what he’s going to say,” might be one way to hear this.

Alternatively, “He already knows the answer to that question,” is another way your suggestion could be dismissed.

Unfortunately, your colleague has missed the strategy behind asking an obvious question.

How many times is something so familiar to you that you simply assume everyone knows it, only to later discover not everyone knows it? As a result of your assumption, you lost out on an opportunity.

Even when you each believe you have the same answer to the obvious question, there may be shades of differences that can lead you each down a different path, incorrectly believing the other is following you.

This is why asking the obvious question is so important. It gives you an opportunity to both confirm and clarify.

But don’t take my word for it. The science behind this was first published in the Journal of Applied Psychology in 1923 (Poffenberger, A.T., “The Return Coupon as a Measure of Advertising Efficiency,” Volume 7(3), September, 1923, pp. 202-208).

Now, one glance at the title and your first response might be “what does clipping advertising coupons have to do with proving you need to ask the obvious question?”

That, my friend, is the obvious question to ask.

I’m glad you asked it.

The truth of the matter is clipping advertising coupons is irrelevant. Why this study is important to us, though, is its methodology.

At the time, Albert T. Poffenberger was not only an Associate Professor of Psychology at Columbia University, but he was also a Lecturer on the Psychology of Advertising at Columbia’s School of Business. By the early 1920s, the haughty disrespect for academics marrying the principles of psychology with the needs of marketing had withered away (much in the same way that, as recently as the early 1990s, behavioral economists were shunned at most of the high-end universities only to be granted special privileges today).

Poffenberger took out six full-page black and white advertisements in the Saturday Evening Post. Three contained coupons, three did not. He then found 210 subjects willing to participate in his experiment. He then asked them to recall what they remembered about the six ads.

This is what he found out (or at least the part that we care about).

About the same number recalled each set of ads. Of those that recalled the first three (the ones with the coupons), 40% also recalled the coupon. Not great, not terrible (if you’re an advertiser).

Here’s the surprising finding from the research: 20% of the people recalled seeing coupons in the second set of three ads.

Why is this so shocking? You might remember, the second set of three ads contained no coupons. These people were remembering things that didn’t exist. For the purposes of the experiment, it didn’t matter if they were lying or if their minds were playing tricks on them, they were still wrong.

Poffenberger was charitable in his analysis. He said they were just “guessing.” For his purposes, this was relevant because it suggested perhaps 20% of the people who correctly reported seeing the coupons in the first set (where coupons did exist) were also guessing. His conclusion was that it’s reasonable to expect that only 20% of the respondents actually remembered the coupons. All others were just guessing (and happened to guess the correct answer.

Now do you begin to see why asking the obvious question is important. You don’t know what the other person really knows.

In fact, to extrapolate from Poffenberger’s experiment, it makes sense to ask the positive question in several different ways because you won’t know when someone is guessing or not.

This is precisely what good market researchers do. They’ll ask a question multiple times in multiple formats to reduce the likelihood of counting lucky guesses.

How does this work in real life? Let’s say you want to ask your boss for a raise but you’re a bit shy. You understand from your last performance review you’ll earn the raise if you meet certain specific benchmarks. You feel you’re accomplishing this, so you see no reason to bother the boss.

But does the boss also think you’re meeting those goals? It might be obvious to you that you are, but unless you get clear confirmation from your boss, you’ll never know for sure what the person who has the authority to give you a raise thinks. And if you wait for your performance review date to find out your assumption was wrong, well, you just lost out on the opportunity to receive a raise.

On the other hand, if, after each time you feel you accomplished a benchmark goal you ask your boss, “Boss, did I just accomplish my benchmark goal?” you’ll know for sure if you did or didn’t. And if you didn’t, you’ll have time to correct the situation before the clock runs out.

So, go ahead and ask that obvious question. It may be worth more than you think.

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