The Life Changing Question - Part 1

Bob Leggitt | Wednesday, 11 January 2012 |

Everyone wants to get the best possible deal out of life. But is there really a deal-breaking question, which can facilitate such a thing? Well, maybe there isn't one single question per se, but as this series of articles will illustrate, there genuinely are some things you can ask, which can and will get you a better deal. There's a fair bit to get through, but stick with this, because it's not a gimmick. If you want to know how life's winners perform so well in the commercial world, this is where some of the most important answers lie...

Long gone are the days when shouting at people yielded results. Today, we generally understand that telling people what to do, without some sort of leverage, will prompt them to completely ignore everything we say. In today’s world, we’re increasingly waking up to the idea that respect is not an inherent property of society. Hence, thirty-somethings can no longer go out into the street and expect authoritative rights over teenagers. The old protocols have evaporated and where once an unqualified demand from an elder brought compliance, it’s now more likely to bring a mouthful of abuse. Some see this as a sad indictment on modern society, but in truth it’s just a psychological inevitability given current levels of understanding.

So if bossing people about doesn’t inherently work, how d’you control people these days? Well, the answer is far more subtle than you may think… In life, there are two extremes of human being: those who perpetually ask questions, and those who perpetually answer them. It may at first seem that the people in the latter group are more intelligent and most likely to ‘succeed’ in life. But in fact, the exact reverse is true. The real positions of power are held not by those who perpetually answer questions, but by those who perpetually ask them. This might seem a little difficult to reconcile at first. Surely people who constantly ask questions are a bit dim… Well, it’s the apparent logic in this perception which has kept the truth about questions and answers so well shrouded.

The propensity either to mostly ask, or to mostly answer questions, can be very directly linked with tendencies towards success of many different types – including financial. Simply, life’s question/answer etiquette is a defining factor in who gets to be the boss, who gets ordered around, who gets the most out of life, and who gets the least. Suffice it to say that becoming the person who asks the questions is an exceptionally important step in achieving a better life in general. In this series of articles I’m going to explore the world of questions and answers, and look at how the ordinary consumer can subordinate even the most powerful corporate individuals.

Like millions of others, you may feel you’re ‘the one who always gets ripped off’ and that you always end up selling things for less than you paid for them. We’re frequently given excuses as to why this might be: ‘the way of the world’ perhaps, or it’s just ‘the same for everyone’. Maybe it’s ‘the lack of a university education’, or even a need to be ‘taller and more attractive’… But none of these excuses bear scrutiny, and it’s certainly not the same for everyone. What about the person selling to us at a profit? It’s not the same for them. They don’t go through life losing money. They do the opposite. But how strange; because the people who constantly profit from life have no more innate authority than those who constantly lose out. They’re not born into some kind of state charter which tells them they’re entitled to more money than anyone else. There’s nothing, and no one, to say that life’s profiteers should always profit, and that anyone else should always lose out. So why does it happen? There has to be a conversational dynamic behind this weird state of affairs. And indeed there is: the humble question.


In a capitalist society, life is a sort of game. There’s usually a winner, and a loser. When you’re playing a game, there are two basic policies open to you: attack, or defence. In the game of life, attack equates to questions, and defence equates to answers. If we go through life constantly answering questions, we’re only ever defending. We can never score a goal, and never win. Every time we provide an answer, we run a risk. It may be the wrong answer, and even if it’s the right answer, it may not be what the inquisitor wants to hear. Worse still, our answer may compromise us in some way and end up being used as ammunition against us. Providing an unwelcome or compromising answer to a question, be it right or wrong, can have a devastatingly negative effect on our lives. When we ask questions, on the other hand, we’re placing that pressure onto someone else, but more importantly, we’re reversing the tide of information so it flows towards, rather than away from us. Information is power. When we ask questions, we usually gain information; when we answer questions, we usually give it away.

You may already be aware of some situations in which the dominant person is the one asking the questions, whilst the subservient person feels compelled to dish up answer after answer – often in great discomfort. Job interviews are a good example. The employer routinely holds all the cards and is overwhelmingly dominant. The candidate feels strongly obliged to answer all the employer’s questions fully and satisfactorily, and in every case I can think of, any candidate attempting to take over the role of the inquisitor and control the course of the interview would be considered unmanageable and inappropriate for the job. We accept, albeit often subconsciously, that the inteviewer should be in control, and we only ask questions if invited – sometimes not even then.

But what about in situations where we’re in control? When we’re buying goods, for example. When we’re buying goods, we hold the torch of dominance. The seller wants us to contribute to company profits, but must first convince us that it’s in our interests to do so. So we have total control. Technically, as much control as the employer has at a job interview. And yet, amazingly, in the modern world, salespeople have become increasingly adept at taking control of a situation they have no right to dominate! They’re naturally the subservient party in a sales interaction.

And yet, particularly where ‘hard sell’ is concerned, salespeople adopt the position of the inquisitor, effectively stifling our legitimate product enquiries whilst gathering masses of information about us. The tide of information here is going in entirely the wrong direction. We’re the ones who need the information! We need to know about the product. What can it do for us? How much does it cost? What happens if something goes wrong?... All we’re potentially bringing to the table is money, and there’s not a fat lot we can teach businesses about money. So why are they asking us questions? Well of course, it’s precisely because questions equal dominance and control that companies have reversed the sales process into this apparently illogical format.

For the time being, there’s one massively important point to bear in mind: if control equals questions, then questions must equal control. Therefore, at the moment we begin to ask, rather than answer questions, we gain control of the proceedings. This is the most effective way to fight against ‘hard sell’, as well as many, many other potential financial adversities. The message?... Not only start asking questions, but equally importantly, in commercial situations, stop answering them!

Of course, that’s not to say you should never give any information to anyone, ever. That would be ridiculous. Sometimes it’s charitable to give away information (no one, for instance, would want to deprive a cat owner of the whereabouts of their lost pet). In other circumstances, giving away information can benefit us (perhaps someone is prepared to pay for a piece of expert advice). We may even find ourselves in a situation where failure to give away our information constitutes a criminal offence. So, this is not about clamming up and barking “I will not talk!” It’s a matter of making people think you’ve answered a question, even if you haven’t, and in the process, finding out all you can about the implications attached to the questions they ask of you.

Life’s winners are usually well versed in answering questions with questions, rather than with answers. And it’s often these secondary, ‘qualifying’ questions which help them understand an inquisitor’s motivation. Once you know why someone is asking you a question, you’ve a good idea of how any information you give is liable to be used, at which point you can make a judgement on how much, if any, information you’re prepared to give. Fascinatingly, many of the questions you’ll have been asked in the past week will not have been asked because the inquisitor needed to know the answer. Some questions are rhetorical, like “What time d’you call this?” Others are simply asked because someone wants to get to know you – “Do you come here often?” is a particularly cheesy example. Some questions are designed to put you on the spot and use up your mental resources while the inquisitor has time to think. More on all of that later, but for now, be aware that questions have many formats, and only a few of these formats have the primary aim of eliciting the information they appear to seek.


Human beings are controlled by fear. One of our biggest fears is the unknown, so it stands to reason that the unknown exercises great control over us. When two people who’ve never previously met are about to meet in a social or business situation, the fear factor is likely to be fairly evenly balanced. Neither knows anything about the other. You’ll probably recall only too well the ‘butterflies’ you sometimes get just before a first meet with a new person after a lot of hype and build-up. That’s fear of the unknown. We want to keep the interaction under control, but are entering into a situation we can’t predict, so we don’t really know how we’re going to control it. Every person is different. One person might expect us to behave in one way, and another might expect us to behave completely differently. One person might be warm and considerate, whilst another might be cold and highly aggressive. Not knowing which of these scenarios we’re going to encounter creates fear.

Of course, as soon as we actually meet the person, we immediately begin to form a gameplan of how we should conduct ourselves, and the nervousness dissipates as we build an information database and once again slip back into our comfort zone. Even if the person is argumentative or difficult, the ‘butterfiles’ still die away, because it isn’t the argumentative personality we fear most – it’s the unknown.

When we first meet someone in a commercial or financially-orientated situation, he/she will experience fear of the unknown. He/she will not be able to simply embark on a pitch, because he/she doesn’t know what we want, or, more importantly, our motivation for wanting what we want. Under these conditions, any comment a potential seller makes to us is a shot in the dark. It may encourage us to buy, but equally, it may actually put us off. Of course, this is fine as far as we’re concerned. If the salesperson merely speaks the truth in its entirety, we can make a sound decision based on the information we get. This, however, is not good for the business's profits. The company is greedy and wants money from everyone – not just the few who find the product meets their exact requirements at face value, at the present time. Thus, the seller is trained not to tell the customer what the product is, but to create an image of what the customer wants the product to be. To do this, the seller needs to know what we want the product to be - hence the questions. So, questions asked by a vendor, a salesperson, or anyone aiming to strike a deal with us, achieve four main ends:

1. They eliminate his/her fear of the unknown.
2. They make him/her the dominant force in the social interaction.
3. They allow him/her to discover what we want to hear.
4. They allow him/her to shroud elements of the product which will put us off.

In refusing to answer the other party's questions, we preserve his/her fear of the unknown and disable his/her most powerful deal-making tools. We expressly need to avoid giving the seller information about our likes, dislikes, fears, etc. And that means avoiding answering his or her questions. But if we additionally fill the consequent silences with questions of our own, we eliminate our own fear of the unknown, and render a seller the subservient force in the interaction – which is exactly as things should be.

Naturally, there are people in life (salespeople in particular, but you’ll probably notice the same tendency in your boss) who understand all this and will not just sit back and allow themselves to be questioned. They’ll have their own techniques for re-establishing control and will desperately fight to get back into the role of inquisitor. You might even have heard your boss make such direct statements as: “How dare you question me!” In extreme cases, a stalemate will arise, where neither party is prepared to answer questions from the other, and communication breaks down. You often see this happening between very high-powered figures, such as political leaders or globalised businesses proposing to merge. But in a consumer sales negotiation it’s different because the consumer holds all the cards. The seller cannot afford a stalemate, because a stalemate is a lost sale. Therefore, if you stand your ground, you the consumer should always win. And winning, in the commercial world, means getting the best deal.

In Part Two I’m going to start looking at different categories of question, and how they can be specifically used to get you a better deal in the commercial environment, and in life. Here's the link to the next installment...

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