The Power of the Second Question

An Insight Into What You Truly Value

I read a book review in the WSJ which caught my attention. The book is called Our Towns by Jay and Deborah Fallows. The Fallows wanted to find out the character which makes up the backbone of America. They flew a small plane to 50 cities over five years and interviewed hundreds of people in these towns.

What caught my attention was the importance of the second question.

The first question people ask is, “What’s your name?”

The second question people ask describes what they value. This question establishes relationships.

Here are some sample second questions.

New York: Where do you work?

Atlanta: What do you do?

Old big city question: What parish do you belong to?

Small town question: What church do you attend?

So what is my second question?

It’s “What do you do?” This is a reflex for me.

The answer to this question puts in motion a whole set of follow-on questions. The answer to the “What do you do?” question and the follow-ons give me context and connection. This is how I expand a conversation.

The answer tells me all kinds of things about them, their work, and their network. I find out what interests them, what they know, how they know it, and what they think about most of the time, including their daily challenges.

But what does this question say about me, the person asking the second question?

It says, “I believe what you do is who you are.”

This question explains why I struggled when I was unemployed. Without my work, I didn’t believe I had an identity. Without an occupation, I thought I was without value to others. I was worthless.

My second question told what I value.

It helped me define five areas of your life that are important to me. But they may not be most important to you.

  1. Your identity
  2. Your work
  3. Your interests
  4. Your earnings
  5. Your network

This is the information I must want to know about the person I’m talking to. The way I have built relationships. It is what I am most comfortable talking about. It must be what I value. Coming to the conclusion that the second question determines my values made me uncomfortable.

What if my second question were one of these:

Are you married?
Do you have a family?
What church do you attend?
Where did you grow up?
What college did you attend?
What are you reading these days?
What do you think about most of the time?
How can I pray for you?
What do you pray about?
What do you do for fun?
What is your favorite activity?
What are you interested in these days?

Each of these questions would lead to a very different conversation. In fact, these questions would show I value deeper personal relationships rather than business-centric relationships. It would demonstrate that I am more interested in knowing them rather than what they do to make money.

I am going to change my second question. Using the new, more personal second question will lead to a different set of follow-on questions to drive the conversation. When I do this, I am going to pay close attention to the relationship which develops.

I bet three changes will take place.

1. I’ll know nothing about what the person does for a living.

2. I’ll know more about their personal life, and they will know more about mine.

3. Our conversation will lead to a deeper and more meaningful relationship.

What’s your second question? What does it say about you and what you value?

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