If you want better answers, ask better questions: What my journey from Oslo, Norway to Tulsa, Oklahoma way back when taught me about asking the right question. The art of asking good questions is the most critical sales skill, right next to listening. It is also the most important consulting skill, coaching skill, and leadership skill. Here is the story of how I learned the value of a well-placed question, and how to change it up when needed.
“Sure, you can travel with the ‘prospective student’ designation, and then you can change your status after you get accepted,” the voice on the other end of the line said.
Really? That’s it? How come nobody told me that the first two times I called?!
I grumbled to myself in mild exasperation. This was my third call to the American Embassy in Oslo, Norway, trying to figure out how the heck I could get a student visa without yet being accepted to a school in the U.S.
It was May or June of 1996, and I had decided about a month before to study in the U.S.
Actually, that’s not true.
It all began when I was four years old
When I was four is the fist time I recall declaring to my dad that I was going to study at the same university he had studied at, in Tulsa, Oklahoma of all places.
My four-year old determination was reinforced at the age of ten, when I visited the campus of Oral Roberts University with my parents. We were on a trip across the U.S., and made a stop in Tulsa on one of those multi-hop trips (like EuroRail but for planes!) that airlines used to offer back in the 80s.
I remember looking around the ORU campus, then up at my dad, saying: “Daddy, this is where I’m going to study when I grow up!”
Fast-forward another 10 years: I’m 20 years old, living in Uppsala, Sweden, and trying to decide whether to study in Prague, Czech Republic, or in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Umm… yes I know. Those are about as different cultures and places as it gets within the Western Hemisphere.
To make a long story short, I had spent some time in the Czech Republic the previous year, and absolutely loved it. I was fascinated with the culture, the language, and all the deep history of Prague, and wanted to immerse myself in it. I thought attending University there would be a great way to do so.
(Someday, I’ll write the alternate story of Hannah’s life, and how it might have turned out, had she chosen the East door instead of the West door…)
But, I digress. That’s a different story for a different day.
Party like it’s nineteen ninety-something
Let’s go back to the spring of 1996.
Earlier that year, I’d met some friends who had attended ORU, and I also got to know some wonderful people from Tulsa that April. On this solid foundation, I made up my mind. I was Tulsa-bound!
Just a small hurdle remained: how to get accepted as an international student in a foreign country.
I was about to be 21 years old, and had come home to my parents’ house in Oslo to work for the summer, after living on my own in Sweden for a year.
I’m from a big family. In big families, your parents don’t do things like research how to apply to international educational institutions for you. In fact, your parents do very little on your behalf except give you a roof over your head, enough food to not go hungry, and the basic necessities. They’re too busy taking care of your younger siblings and managing the inevitable chaos that seems to be constantly looming over everyday life.
So, you figure life out more or less on your own, which turns out is great practice for actually living and succeeding in life, given the fact that your life is, in fact, your own, and you’re the only one who can own it.
I inquired with the university about how to enroll as an international student. It was expensive calling the U.S. from Norway, so I tried to keep my call brief.
Naturally, I’d need a student visa, I figured, and some other documentation, like my high school transcripts and such.
And, sure enough. In order to get accepted to the school, they told me, I needed to show proof of financial support and a valid visa.
OK. Sounded easy enough. I called the U.S. Embassy in Oslo.
“How do I get a student visa?” I asked.
“Bring your acceptance letter from the school you plan to attend, and apply here,” said the person at the embassy.
Hmm… OK. Hadn’t I just been told I needed a student visa in order to get accepted?
Undeterred, I called the Norwegian national financial aid office.
One of the great benefits of being a Norwegian citizen is that the government offers student aid for studying abroad. I explained that I was planning to attend a university in the United States, to which they helpfully shared that all I needed in order to complete my application for student aid, was an acceptance letter from that university.
Oh…wait. What the… crap?!
I couldn’t get accepted to the university without a visa and financial aid. And I couldn’t get a visa nor financial aid without being accepted to the university…! It seemed I was caught in a classic catch-22.
What to do next?
I called the embassy for the second time. “How do I get a student visa?” I asked again. Same answer.
Really? “But it seems I can’t get an acceptance letter without a student visa,” I explained. Surely, there was a different way to do this.
“You cannot obtain a student visa without an acceptance letter,” was the definitive answer.
So, I called the university again, incurring more international phone charges, and explained my dilemma. Again, nobody seemed to be able to help. I definitely needed a visa and proof that I had the financial means to pay for my education and support myself, before they could grant me acceptance.
If you want better answers, ask better questions
At this point, I was literally banging my head against the wall. A couple days went by and my frustration grew. I knew I was supposed to go to this school! It was destined to be. Right?
I started thinking about what it would be like to live abroad in the U.S. About traveling around the states, seeing different places, meeting all sorts of people. Perhaps I should check out some other schools, just to be sure?
Suddenly, an idea struck me. I called the embassy again.
This time, because I was embarrassed about the fact I’d already called them twice in as many days, I pretended to be someone else, and slightly changed my story.
Third time’s the charm
“I’m planning a trip to the U.S. this summer,” I told them. “I’ll be visiting some universities, because I’m interested in studying abroad. Is it possible to obtain a visa while I’m overseas?”
“All you need for that is a tourist visa, with a ‘prospective student’ designation. It is valid for 3 months,” came the answer.
“And this ‘prospective student’ visa will get me accepted into universities in the U.S.?” I asked, hopefully.
“Sure. You can travel with the ‘prospective student’ designation, and then you can change your status after you get accepted. Once you are accepted into a university in the U.S., you can apply for a 4-year student visa through the U.S. Immigration service, and change your status from ’tourist’ to ’student’.”
And there it was. My answer! Just like that.
Turns out, I didn’t need a student visa after all. What I needed was a tourist visa, with a particular designation. But because I had kept asking about a student visa, all I got was a dead end.
Change your question, change your life
Once I changed my question, the answer changed, and a whole new world (literally) opened up to me.
And this is how I discovered the power of asking the right questions.
Renowned leadership expert and author Stephen Covey famously gave his university students 50% of their grade for the quality of their questions, and the other 50% for the quality of their answers to those questions. His point was that knowledge is better revealed that way – because you cannot ask a question outside of your field of knowledge.
Here’s the lesson:
The questions we ask impact the outcomes we get.
In my case, I didn’t know much about the immigration and visa process. So, I was having difficulty coming up with a question that could help me arrive at the answer I needed. I was too close to the problem, and was stuck on a single-track line of thinking.
By taking a step back, reassessing the situation, expanding and broadening the way I thought about it, I was able to ask a more effective question, which revealed other possible answers.
Over time, I’ve come to recognize that asking good questions is perhaps the single most important life skill.
It is certainly the most critical sales skill, right next to listening. It is also the most important consulting skill, coaching skill, and leadership skill.
Many will argue that listening skills are the most important skills. And they may be right. However, you will have much more valuable information to listen to, if you skillfully allow other people to open up to you by asking them insightful questions.
Just don’t forget: when you have asked a question, shut up and listen.
The answer may be different from what you expected.
What are some of your favorite questions to ask a new acquaintance? A prospective client? A first date?
What are some questions you have been asking, but are not happy with the answers to? How may you reframe this question, to serve you and your clients better?