Questions are crucial to thinking, learning, and innovation. As Thomas Berger said, “The art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge.” In business and relationships, as in science, asking questions is important, but what’s even more important is asking questions at the right time. Whether you’re networking, talking with a client, or engaging with customers, asking the right questions at the right time – and then taking action on the insight you gain – leads to better relationships.

Ask Questions When You Can Hear the Answer

The other day, I ran into a colleague who asked me how my presentation to the board went. I didn’t get past opening my mouth when she said “enough said” and told me something going on at her work, and then she walked off. I wondered about this until I ran into her again and asked her why she didn’t give me a chance to answer. She didn’t wait for the answer, she told me, because she forgot her hearing aid and couldn’t hear.

Whether you’re in a noisy restaurant, making a phone call on a busy New York City street and sirens start blaring – or you don’t have your hearing aid in – there are times when it’s better to wait to ask a question. When you can hear the person you’re talking to, you can demonstrate your interest and respect for the person and his or her time. Even if it means rescheduling or postponing your question, it’s worth waiting to make it clear to the person you want to hear what they have to say.

Ask Questions When You Care About the Answer

In many retail establishments, cashiers are now trained to ask the customer whether they found everything they were looking for. Recently, this happened to a shopper I was with at a store visit. Instead of saying yes as the few people in front of her had said, she told the cashier that she couldn’t find something she usually bought. The cashier stared at her blankly, then finished ringing up her purchase. The cashier was obviously used to asking the question but not at all prepared to deal with the answer – and when we talked about it later, the shopper said she felt like the cashier didn’t care about her. But when you care about the answer, you can respond appropriately. Even if you can’t solve the customers’ problems immediately, simply acknowledging and responding to them can make them feel valued. Don’t miss the chance to demonstrate that you care about your customers.

Ask Questions When You’re Open to Listening to the Answer

When a customer mentioned during a focus group that she couldn’t find a product she needed, rather than getting defensive or arguing the product was on the shelf (which a later store visit confirmed it was), the buyer found out which store she shopped at and promised to have the item at the customer service counter for her the next morning. It would have been easier for the buyer to dismiss her, but by being willing to listen, he was able to resolve issues. The actions you take to follow up and follow through demonstrate you’re listening.

The art of asking is not just about the questions, but also about timing and taking action.

Originally published on Business2Community