Just a few years ago, the world seemed to be bursting with an infinite supply of business. It lulled us into taking our customers for granted, until the economy tanked and shattered the illusion of endless prosperity. Suddenly, the old-fashioned “trusted relationship” started to look good again.
In this post-Madoff era of unpredictability and suspicion, people are looking for deeper, more intimate and more engaged relationships that reduce risk. When times are tough and the future is uncertain, people want to put down roots and partner with people they truly like and trust.
Bottom line: In today’s markets, the most valuable commodity is the ability to connect with others and rapidly build trust. Asking questions first and letting people come up with their own answers is far more effective than spouting facts or trying to talk someone into something. Telling creates resistance. Asking creates relationships.
Here are nine ways questions can transform relationships:
1. Questions turn one-dimensional, arms-length business relationships into personal relationships that endure for years. When a relationship is all business without a real personal connection, it lacks heart and soul. And therefore you are a commodity. A client — or your boss — can trade you out for a new model with no remorse or emotion. But when you’ve connected personally, the situation is transformed because clients stick with people they like. Your expertise and competence get you in the door, but it’s the personal connection that builds loyalty.
Take the story of a senior partner in a top consulting firm who met with the CEO of a major client. At the end of a routine briefing, the senior partner paused and asked the CEO, “You’ve had an extraordinary career. As you look ahead — is there something else you’d like to accomplish? Is there a dream you’ve yet to fulfill?”
The CEO was nearly stunned. He thought for a moment and replied, “No one has ever asked me that question.” Then he talked about a dream he had for retirement. That question was the turning point in building a long-term, personal relationship with an influential business leader.
2. They make the conversation about the other person—not about them. Most of us don’t care what other people think—we want to know first if they care about us. The need to be heard is one of the most powerful motivating forces in human nature. That’s why one of my power questions is, "What do you think?" Another is, "Can you tell me more?"
When you make the conversation all about you, you will not build their trust or learn about them. You will squander the opportunity to build the foundations for a rich, long-term relationship.
3. They cut through the “blah, blah, blah” and create more authentic conversations. No doubt you can relate to this scenario. A person says, “I want to bounce something off you.” Then, he spends 10 minutes telling you every detail of a very complicated situation. Get him to focus on the true kernel of his issue by asking "What is your question?"
This is a tough-love question. People will resist it, often strenuously. But you must ask. It forces them to take the first step toward clarifying what the issue is and what advice they need from you. You’ll move toward an authentic conversation faster.
4. They help people clarify their thinking and “get out of the cave.” The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates said we perceive reality as if we are chained inside a dark cave, and we see only the blurred shadows of life outside the cave as they are projected on a dark wall at the back. Our understanding of reality is filtered and distorted.
By asking a series of questions, Socrates would engage his students’ minds in the learning process; he uncovered assumptions and got to the heart of the issue. The “Socratic Method” is still used at Harvard Business School — and it can enable you to help others see reality instead of shadowy representations of it.
Instead of saying, “We need to improve our customer service,” try asking: “How would you assess our customer service levels today?” If someone at work says, “We need more innovation,” ask, “Can you describe what innovation means to you? How would we know if we had more of it?”
5. They help you zero in on what matters most to the other person. The next time you’re talking to someone and realize you’ve “lost” her — she’s fidgeting or she’s stopped asking questions — ask this question: What is the most important thing we should discuss today? You will instantly connect with what really matters to her — and the conversation will help her see you as relevant and valuable.
Even if your agenda doesn’t get met, hers will, and she will want to enthusiastically reciprocate. In business it’s critical to be seen as advancing the other person’s agenda of essential priorities and goals.
6. They help others tap into their essential passion for their work. One of the highest-impact power questions you can ask is, "Why do you do what you do?" When they seriously consider and answer this question, the room will light up with passion. Dull meetings will transform into sessions that generate impactful ideas.
We do things for many reasons. But when you put "should" in front of those reasons, you can be certain all the pleasure and excitement will soon be drained away. In contrast, when you unveil the true "why" of someone’s work and actions, you will find passion, energy and motivation.
7. They inspire people to work at a higher level. The late Steve Jobs was notorious for pushing employees. He asked people constantly, "Is this the best you can do?" It’s a question that infused Apple’s corporate culture from the beginning. And it’s one that you can use, too — sparingly and carefully — when you need someone to stretch their limits and do their very best work.
Often, we settle for mediocrity when we need to do our best. Mediocrity is the enemy of greatness. Asking, "Is this the best you can do?" helps others achieve things they did not believe possible.
8. They can save you from making a fool of yourself. Before responding to a request or answering someone’s question, it’s often wise to get more information about what the other person really wants. When a prospect asks, “Can you tell me about your firm?” reply with “What would you like to know about our firm?” Most people go on and on about their company, but the client is usually interested in one particular aspect of your business.
9. They can salvage a disastrous conversation. My coauthor, Jerry Panas, recalls the time he asked a man named Allan for a million-dollar donation to his alma mater’s College of Engineering. The author failed to gain rapport and explore Allan’s true motivations before jumping in with the big request.
When Allan rebuked him for his presumptuousness, Panas realized he had made a serious error. He apologized, left the room, and 20 seconds later knocked on the door and asked the power question, "Do you mind if we start over?" Panas ultimately discovered that Allan might indeed be interested in making a gift, but to the University’s theater program.
Things like this happen all the time in business and at home. Interactions get off on the wrong foot, and someone gets angry or offended. But people are forgiving. They want to have a great conversation with you. Asking, Do you mind if we start over? will disarm the other person and make him smile. That smile will ease the way to a new beginning.
One of the greatest benefits of becoming a master questioner is that it takes a lot of pressure off. It’s a huge relief to know that you don’t have to have all the answers. The right questions help you bypass what’s irrelevant and get straight to what’s truly meaningful. They make people like you, trust you and want to work with you —and once you’ve achieved that, the battle is already won.
Andrew Sobel, along with Jerry Panas, wrote "Power Questions: Build Relationships, Win New Business, and Influence Others."