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A Future in Questions, Not Answers

Learning to ask meaningful questions is particularly valuable in our business because there are so few "right" answers.

Carl Richards, 12/09/2010

Asking great questions is an incredibly valuable skill, but paradoxically, having the right answers might not be as valuable as we think. Business strategist Seth Godin recently wrote:

"You can add value in two ways: You can know the answers [or] you can offer the questions. Relentlessly asking the right questions is a long-term career, mostly because no one ever knows the right answers on a regular basis."

I have always valued Godin's work, and I now realize that it's because he asks a lot of the right kind of questions--questions that get me on the right path.

Learning to ask meaningful questions is particularly valuable in our business because there are so few "right" answers. This applies to the questions we ask our clients, but it starts with the questions we should be asking ourselves.

I have noticed that many people in the traditional financial-services industry don't like questions. Consider how dismissive the passive investing crowd can be about an actively managed investment strategy, and vice versa. When is the last time you heard an open-minded conversation about Modern Portfolio Theory?

Because there is very little in the field of investment advice that would qualify as settled doctrine, it seems to me that we actually get paid to be open to new ideas. With so much at stake, why are we so afraid of questions?

We don't like confusion. It's human nature to avoid things we don't understand because often that leads to confusion, and as the great design thinker Richard Saul Wurman said, "Confusion is anti-American."

We don't like being wrong. Asking questions, and carefully considering what we learn, requires us to be open to the possibility that we might be wrong. When we tie our value to the answers instead of the questions, being wrong can also be seen as a disaster for our business.

We don't like to think. We may dismiss new information out of intellectual and emotional laziness. It takes less work to defend an outdated map (even if it's wrong) than it does to consider a new one.

We assume that clients value our certainty instead of our inquiry.

But in an environment where we're becoming increasingly confident that we don't know what will happen, our value lies not in knowing the future, but in our confidence that we know how to figure this stuff out. We know how to ask the right questions to navigate the changing landscape.

The good news is that clients know we don't have all the answers, so the worst thing we can do is pretend that we know the answers. It is far more valuable to build a long-term career as the professional who asks the right questions and then helps people deal with whatever the answers bring.

Carl Richards believes that the world is a better place when people make smarter decisions about their money. That's just one of the big ideas he promotes at BehaviorGap.com, where Richards asks tough questions about financial planning and investor behavior. Richards puts his ideas to work in the real world through his firm, Prasada Capital Management.

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