The statement made by President John F. Kennedy that everyone remembers is: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” 

Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher, asserted that asking questions stimulates critical thinking and illuminates ideas. This concept is embodied in the Socratic Method, which remains a bedrock principle of Western education more than 2,000 years after his death. 

Voltaire, the politically and culturally influential 18th-century French philosopher, maintained that asking the right question requires as much skill as giving the right answer.

I refer to these influential men not to flaunt my intellectual prowess, but rather to add currency and relevance to my own belief that asking and recognizing good questions as we navigate the shoals of personal and business relationships is of paramount importance. Questions, or the lack thereof, often reveals more about a person than answers and should be weighed carefully when we assess( dare I say judge) each other and make important people-driven decisions in our daily lives.

When we talk to someone we do not know at a social or business event and they do not ask any questions about who we are, what we do or what we think about something, that speaks to their character, personality and intellect. It tells us that person is probably not interested in us, without curiosity, or simply self-centered, and I believe we should be cautious about entering into a personal or business relationship with such a person. 

Now I might be wrong, and that person might just be shy, or a reticent New Englander taught from birth that it was rude to “probe.” But personally, if there are no questions forthcoming after an introduction, I am either wary or I lose interest.

In almost all commercial/ business transactions, whether retail or wholesale, the likelihood of the buyer and seller being satisfied is greatly enhanced if good questions are asked by each side before a transaction is consummated. When we shop for something important to us, whether it is a car or computer system, it is incumbent upon a salesperson to find out who we are, what we like, and what we want and/or need, and that can only be accomplished by asking questions. 

If a salesperson does not ask questions that induce us to reveal our needs, goals and intentions, can we trust them to match us with the right product? Do we want to give them our business? And when we ask good questions of that salesperson, we are demonstrating to them that we are smart buyers, they will have to earn our business, and we cannot be persuaded to buy the wrong product.

Do we want to go to doctors, lawyers, financial advisers or mental health professionals who fail to ask us meaningful questions about why we are there, what our goals are and what we expect from them? And we should never be reluctant to ask them about their credentials, experience and how they plan to tackle our problem. We trust these professionals with the most important parts of our life, and if they do not like our questions, or we theirs, then we should stand up and walk out. Speaking of lawyers, isn’t the apex moment of every cinematic or literary courtroom drama the direct and cross-examination of the star witness?

If a job applicant does not ask meaningful questions, it reveals they have not put enough thought into the position they are interviewing for and/or they are not qualified for the job. Credentials aside, how can the applicant’s character and work ethic be measured without the potential employer asking incisive, personality-focused questions?

Good friendships are an integral part of an emotionally healthy life. If an important event is pending or has occurred in our life, and someone thought of as a good friend does not ask for details about it or otherwise fails to show any interest, we should either “call” them on their omission; reconsider that friendship; put them in a revised social context, or exercise some combination of these options. 

And if we see a “friend” that we have not talked with in a while, and all they want to talk about is what they have been doing and their job, children or dog and ask nothing about developments in our life, then that person may not be the friend we believed them to be, and probably does not understand what it means to be a good friend. 

Family members generally get a pass on this “test” because we cannot choose them, and trying to enlighten them can be a very painful and regrettable experience. But we can choose our friends, and if they do not act like friends, maybe they do not belong in our lives. Unless of course, they are married to one of our friends, or is a friend of our spouse or significant other, in which case, never mind.

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Richard Ross lives in Amesbury.

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