Preschool kids ask their parents an average of 100 questions a day. By middle school, they’ve basically stopped asking questions. Curiosity is a lost superpower.
So how does this happen?
First, you’ve had terrible role models. When you were a kid, your parents asked, “Don’t you think you should wear a jacket?” and “Are you sure you want to hang out with those kids?” or “Don’t you think you should do your homework?” These are leading questions and demonstrate zero curiosity.
Then you go off to school, where the system rewards correct answers—not great questions—with good grades. In addition, you pick up social cues that prevent you from exercising your curiosity. For example, asking a question right before recess, or any break for that matter, is frowned upon by your peers. As you head into your first job interview, you are rewarded mostly for your answers.
After all of this conditioning, you enter a career in sales that requires you to be effective at asking questions. So naturally, you ask the same sort of leading questions that your parents asked. “Don’t you think you should buy from a global provider?” and “Wouldn’t you agree that sole-sourcing puts you at risk?”
It gets even worse. In the traditional trainings you attended, you were discouraged from asking your customers “why” questions—the cornerstone question of curious children—since it may come off as offensive.
In our workshops, we show the participants a photo of a standard business meeting and ask them to describe what’s happening in the picture. We ask what they know about the picture, and what they want to know about it. Salespeople quickly identify it as a picture of a meeting. They have a few questions, but their curiosity is barely activated.
Then we show them a picture of flying cats—not just any flying cats but cats that look like they’re being flown by stormtrooper pilots. We ask, “What’s going on in this picture? What questions do you have?”
With big smiles on their faces, the participants rattle off questions. “Are they real?” “Why are they flying?” “Where did they come from and where are they going?” “How much do these flying cats cost, and where can I get one?”
Think of your world—the world you live and compete in. Does it look more like the first picture or the second picture? Of course it looks more like the meeting than the cats. So why, then, were they more interested in the picture of flying cats?
We then implore the participants to show the same level of curiosity for the first picture (which we show again) as they did for the second. Suddenly, they demonstrate their lost curiosity superpower, and the questions come fast and furious. What is going on here? As salespeople, they’re familiar with meetings—what they look like, what they feel like. As humans, they are both pattern seeking and inference making—both of which work against curiosity.
Put yourself in this situation. Calling on your curiosity superpower, what questions would you have about a picture of a meeting?
Research suggests that a problem identification mindset is more valuable than a problem-solving mindset. You’re forced to solve problems when you’re reacting to a situation, rather than proactively demonstrating your capabilities by identifying the problem to begin with. Curiosity is the first step toward good problem identification, and identifying the problem is essential to making your customer feel heard, understood, and valued. That is the foundation of a successful sales relationship.
 Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, “The Creativity Crisis,” Newsweek, July 10, 2010, accessed September 20, 2018, https://www.newsweek.com/creativity-crisis-74665.
John Reid is the author of Moving from Models to Mindsets and is Founder and President of JMReid Group, whose clients have included Ernst & Young, ProAmpac, Global Healthcare Exchange, Ryerson, and Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group. In 2015, JMReid Group’s work was featured in Training magazine’s Top 10 Hall of Fame Outstanding Training Initiatives.
For more advice on sales, you can find Moving from Models to Mindsets on Amazon.