Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Martina M. Cartwright

Martina M. Cartwright Ph.D., R.D.

The Value of Asking

... especially because you may not get the answers you expect.

Evgeny Bakharev/Shutterstock
Source: Evgeny Bakharev/Shutterstock

This story begins at the end of someone’s life. I was recently asked to provide nutrition counsel for a terminally ill 94-year-old woman named Florence*. Despite her illness, Florence’s mind was sharp and her life memories robust. Although she said she tried to live her life without regret, she told me that her greatest disappointments always stemmed from making assumptions: “Assumptions are cyanide to relationships. Asking, now that’s the key to a satisfying life.”


It seems so simple: Pose a question and receive an answer. But assumption often serves as a Great Wall against getting what we want or expect. Assumptions can end relationships, disrupt communication, and impede understanding.

With sadness, Florence recalled a romantic relationship that ended due to assumptions. As a secretary to an advertising executive in New York during the jet set, three-martini lunch days of the 1960s, Florence described her life as the incarnation of Mad Men. Recalling being swept off her feet by a “dashing blue-eyed dragon of an ad man,” she recounted feelings and memories with the spark of youth in her eyes—eyes that soon filled with tears. “He assumed I would never move to San Francisco where he lived. He assumed I wouldn’t give up my career. But he never asked and just disappeared. Years later when I saw him again, unhappily married and living a life that looked good to outsiders, he told me how sorry he was that things didn’t work out. I reminded him that he never asked.” Thirty years later, Florence said she learned the value of asking in this singular moment with her former beau.

The value of asking instead of assuming fosters the following:

Deeper connections. We all seek them both in our professional and personal lives. Establishing a meaningful rapport with those around us restores our faith in humanity and reminds us to take into account the feelings of others.

Understanding. People seek to be understood. How many times each day do people say, "You don’t understand me"? Asking encourages understanding and provides a path to deeper connections.

Communication and listening. In our hyperconnected world, it’s hard to believe that communication barriers still exist. We often make assumptions based on incomplete data or lack of proof, which can result in misguided, life-changing decisions. How many broken relationships result from assumptions? How many interactions with health care providers are tainted by assumptions that impact medical decision-making? Assumptions, regardless of the nature of the relationship, suppress real understanding.

Processing life’s challenges. Struggle, disappointment, hurt, and uncomfortable feelings like guilt and shame are part of life’s journey. Asking instead of assuming gets to the real heart of a matter and encourages healthier relationships.

As simple as it seems, asking is often hard because the answer may not be what’s desired, but asking is required for a satisfying life.

At the end of our visit, I looked at Florence, smiled, and said, “Florence, do you need anything?”

With a gleam in her eye, she replied, “No dear, but thank you for asking.”

"It's impossible,” said pride.
“It’s risky,” said experience.
“It’s pointless,” said reason.
“Give it a try," whispered the heart. —

* Name and age have been changed to protect identity.


About the Author

Martina M. Cartwright

Martina M. Cartwright, Ph.D., R.D., is an adjunct professor of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Arizona and an independent biomedical consultant.


My website, LinkedIn