One of the most important skills I learned as a psychiatrist and now apply to my work as a personal and business coach/consultant is to ask the next question. Because very often, when listening to a person’s life story or the story of his or her business, things don’t quite add up. The narrative doesn’t really explain why the person made a particular decision or felt so strongly about an event that unfolded or left a relationship. And it is far more common to feel that something seems to be missing from the story than to actually ask the next question to burrow toward the truth. Being helpful to someone really means being a kind of detective—investigating his or her thoughts and emotions until enough information is unearthed for them to add up.
The classic detective who fit this mold was Columbo, played by the legendary actor Peter Falk. Columbo would often scratch his head, then turn back to a person he was interviewing about a crime and say, “Forgive me. I have just one more question, because I’m slow with this stuff, and what you said about the clock not running when you got to the apartment still doesn’t quite add up for me . . .”
See, Columbo was a burrower. He had a sixth sense as a detective for when a narrative hadn’t quite reached the point where it proceeded logically from one detail, to the next, to the next, moving toward a rational, satisfying conclusion.
Satisfying is a good way to put it. We all know that feeling when things make sense. And we know from math classes that we were tempted, at times, to say, “Yes, I get it,” when we didn’t really get it. In running your life or running a business, that sense of unease, of things not clicking, is gold. Because it should trigger you deploying your skills as a detective to ask the next question. Be Columbo.
I still can’t quite grasp why I wasn’t told that we were running over budget? I feel like you want to get onto the fact that we can make things right, but I feel uncomfortable skating over the data. Why did you hold back on the information?
I’m still not hearing whether you think, in your heart of hearts, that the deal is worth pursuing. What’s your honest opinion?
I know you’re saying you left home when I was a kid because things were “so complicated,” but that doesn’t feel like a complete answer. Complicated, how?
When I asked how you felt when you went through that trouble, you said, “How does anyone feel? Lousy.” But did you feel angry or embarrassed or sad or what? I’m really listening.
Very often, people need you to be the detective in their lives. They need that next question, in order to reveal who they are or what they care about or what they’re worried about. Because people don’t generally rip their chests open and give you their hearts. They need to know you want them to. They need to know you won’t readily accept half-truths. Then need an invitation to be more candid—with you and with themselves.
Give them the invitation. Ask the next question. Be the detective who burrows to the core of things, with courage and conviction and compassion.
Dr. Keith Ablow