Why Mastering the Art of Asking Questions Is So Essential

Don Tennant

Last week in my post, "Asking the Right Questions Can Have a Dramatic Impact on Your Life," I wrote about the importance of knowing what questions to ask in a given situation. The topic warrants further discussion, to elaborate on exactly why mastering the art of asking questions is so essential.


In that post I shared some tips from Andrew Sobel, a management consultant, executive coach and co-author of "Power Questions: Build Relationships, Win New Business, and Influence Others," about asking questions during a job interview. To underscore the importance of asking questions in a more general context, here are nine ways Sobel says questions can transform professional and personal relationships:


  • Questions turn one-dimensional, arms-length business relationships into personal relationships that endure for years. When a relationship is all business and there is no real personal connection, it lacks heart and soul. And therefore you are a commodity-a kind of fungible expert-for-hire. 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. Bosses hold on to team members they feel passionately about. Your expertise and competence get you in the door, but it's the personal connection that then builds deep loyalty. A senior partner in a top consulting firm once had to meet with the CEO of a major client. Other consultants were nipping at their heels to get more business from this company. This powerful, confident CEO, who was in his 60s and near retirement, had seen hundreds of consulting reports. At the end of a routine briefing, the senior partner paused and asked the CEO, "Before we break up, can I ask you a question?" The CEO nodded. The partner said, "You've had an extraordinary career. You have accomplished so much, starting at the very first rung of the ladder, on the manufacturing floor. 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. No one." And then he began talking about a deeply held dream he had for his retirement. That question was the turning point in building a long-term, deeply personal relationship with an influential business leader.
  • 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 power questions include, "What do you think?" and "Can you tell me more?" There's an anecdote about a woman who has dinner, in the same month, with two great rival British statesmen of the 19th century, Gladstone and Disraeli. When asked to compare the two men she says, "After my dinner with Mr. Gladstone, I thought he was the cleverest man in the world." And then she adds, "After my dinner with Mr. Disraeli, I felt as though I were the cleverest woman in all of England!" When you make the conversation all about you, others may think you are clever. But you will not build their trust. You will not learn about them. You will squander the opportunity to build the foundations for a rich, long-term relationship.
  • 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 proceeds to spend 10 minutes telling you every detail of a very convoluted situation he is enmeshed in. You do yourself and the other person a favor by getting him to focus on the true kernel of his issue. Simply ask: "What is your question?" It's a tough-love question. People will resist it-often strenuously. But you must ask it. It forces them to take the first step toward clarifying what the issue is and what advice they really need from you. You'll reduce the amount of posturing people do and will move faster toward an authentic conversation.
  • They help people clarify their thinking and "get out of the cave." The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates said that we perceive reality as if we are chained inside a dark cave. In that cave, 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. In this way he uncovered assumptions and slowly but surely 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 the true 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?" Or, "How is our service impacting our customer retention?" 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?" Or if there is a call for more teamwork, ask, "What do you mean when you say teamwork'?"
  • 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, she's stopped asking questions, maybe she's sneaking glances at the clock-ask this question: "What is the most important thing we should be discussing today?" You will instantly connect with what really matters to her-and the conversation that ensues will help her see you as relevant and valuable. Even if your agenda doesn't get met, hers will. And then 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. When time is spent together on issues that are truly important to both parties, the relationship deepens and grows.
  • 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?" It grabs people by the heart and motivates them. When they seriously consider and answer this question, the room will light up with passion. Dull meetings will transform into sessions that pop with energy and generate ideas that vault over bureaucratic hurdles and create real impact. 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. No one gets excited about "should." In contrast, when you unveil the true "why" of someone's work and actions-when you get him to start sentences with "I love to" or "I get excited when"-you will find passion, energy, and motivation.
  • 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. It's one that helped revolutionize the desktop computing, music, and cellular phone industries. And it's one that you can use, too-sparingly and carefully-when you need people 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.
  • They can save you from making a fool of yourself. Before responding to a request or answering someone's question to you, it's often wise to get more information about what the other person really wants. When a potential employer says, "Tell me about yourself," you can bore them to tears by rambling on and on about your life-or you could respond by asking, "What would you like to know about me?" When a prospect asks, "Can you tell me about your firm?" the same dynamic applies. Most people go on and on about their company, but the client is usually interested in one particular aspect of your business, not how many offices you have in Europe. Ever seen someone answer the wrong question? It's painful to watch. Asking a clarifying question can save you huge embarrassment.
  • They can salvage a disastrous conversation. Jerry Panas, co-author of "Power Questions," recalls the time he asked a man named Allan for a million-dollar donation to his alma mater's College of Engineering. Though he knew better, Panas 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?" Start over they did, and Panas ultimately discovered that Allan might indeed be interested in making a gift-but to the University's theater program, not its engineering 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 or just shuts down. 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.

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Mar 21, 2012 4:57 PM Ken G Ken G  says:

I wholeheartedly agree with this article.  Asking the right question can be the most memorable part of any encounter.

I once interviewed a NYT best-selling author about his latest Star Wars book.  When we were done, I told him I'd gotten all the information I needed about this project.  He asked me if I had any questions about any of his other projects.  Having read all his works, I said, "In every single one of your stories, you always kill off the hero's father.  Why?"  Surprised, he took a quiet moment before responding, "I didn't realize I was doing that -- but you're right.  I'll have to think about that."

Feb 13, 2013 10:59 AM Strategic Planning Strategic Planning  says:
Excellent points. Asking the right question to the right person at right time will help you to learn more and is the best way to develop your knowledge. Reply

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