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Questions that Work and Don’t Work
The CEO of a $12-billion company offered a simple explanation about how he forms an opinion of other people in the early stages of a business relationship. He gauges “the quality of their questions and how intently they listen.” This CEO confirmed that good questions open doors and offer more insight than good answers. “Power questions” help you elevate your conversations, unlock new opportunities and “get directly to the heart of the matter.”
“What Would You Like to Know About Us?”
In a meeting, three consultants tried to convince five senior executives to hire them for their firm. One prospective client started, as expected, with a softball question: “Tell us a bit about yourselves.” The lead consultant described his firm’s history, its team approach and how well its consultants listen. After he talked for 30 minutes, the client’s VP closed the meeting, saying she had another appointment. The consultants had learned nothing about the client’s goals or challenges.
“Good questions challenge your thinking. They reframe and redefine the problem.”
A year later, one of the consultants was on a similar sales call with a senior partner, DeWitt, a veteran of hundreds of such meetings. The prospect asked the same opening question. DeWitt paused and asked, “What would you like to know about us?” He quietly waited for the answer. The client offered specifics. He asked what the consultancy could do for his company and how the firm worked internally. DeWitt responded with more questions to drill down to what the client needed and to spur a productive dialogue.
“This may seem counterintuitive, but asking questions and then listening puts you in control of the conversation. Because your questions require an answer, you are in the position of power.”
DeWitt discovered that the client once had a bad experience with a consulting company that claimed to be global, but didn’t function well internally. So DeWitt did something unexpected – he praised the younger consultant who was with him instead of talking about his own 25 years of experience. The prospect became DeWitt’s client for eight years, until the senior consultant retired, and then he became the younger consultant’s client.
The lesson is this: During a job interview or client meeting, when a potential employer or prospective client says, “Tell me about yourself” or your firm, ask in response, “What would you like to know?” The answer will illuminate what the employer – or client – needs and wants.
“Your job is not to listen and respond. Your job is to gain information and create a vibrant dialogue.”
“What Do You Think?”
People often overlook this powerful question, even if they complain about those who talk too much. Nobody ever complains when you listen. By asking question, you’re letting others know you hear them and value their input. Be a sponge, soaking up information, and really listen to the answer. You might not like what you hear, but every answer provides an opportunity. Use this question when you’re discussing a problem or planning for the future, after you have presented a proposal or shared your views, and when someone brings a problem to your attention.
“When you make the conversation all about you, others may think you are clever. But you will not build their trust.”
“Are They Ready to Buy?”
Inventor Dean Kamen holds more than 100 patents; he has created an insulin pump, a portable kidney dialysis machine, an electric wheelchair and other inventions. In December 2001, Kamen announced a new product he thought would change the transportation industry. He anticipated a market of six billion people for The Segway, a battery-powered upright personal scooter.
Kamen predicted that he would sell 10,000 Segways a week at $5,000 a pop. In reality, he sold about 10 a week and only 50,000 total in 10 years. Kamen failed to meet the first condition of making a sale. He didn’t ask, “Is there a problem or opportunity?” People bought bicycles or motorcycles, walked or traveled by car as they always did. The Segway didn’t solve a transportation problem, and so it did not sell.
“A person says, ‘I want to ask you something.’ Then, they proceed to spend 10 minutes telling you every detail of a very convoluted situation they are enmeshed in.”
Products must meet three conditions to succeed: Potential buyers must recognize the problem you want to solve, believe that you offer the best alternative and “own the problem,” which means they have the authority to buy a solution. Ask yourself, “Do the buyers trust you and believe you’re the best alternative?” And, “Are they ready to buy?”
“Have you ever watched someone give a five-minute answer to the wrong question – to a question they thought they heard but which wasn’t actually asked? It’s painful.”
“Is This the Best You Can Do?”
Steve Jobs pushed his people. He used this question often, and got results with it. Super Bowl XVIII in 1984 featured a groundbreaking, award-winning Apple Macintosh commercial. It showed a woman in athletic clothes running through an oppressed crowd and hurling a sledgehammer at an image of a dictator on a screen.
Before the commercial aired, Jobs worried about how slowly the computer loaded. He hovered over his engineers. Weeks later, they proudly showed off slightly shorter times. “Is that the best you can do?” Jobs asked, and left abruptly. Many sleepless nights later, the team shaved off a few more seconds with each try. Jobs still wasn’t satisfied. “Let’s say you can shave 10 seconds off the boot time,” he said. “Multiply that by five million users and that’s 50 million seconds, every single day. So if you can make it boot 10 seconds faster, you’ve saved at least a dozen lives.”
“Power questions are important because they open the door to bottomless exploration and opportunity.”
“What Did You Learn?”
A corporation’s stock is falling. The company’s senior executives realize that they’re holding worthless stock options and that the firm is susceptible to a hostile takeover. They hire consultants to remedy the situation. The consultants’ analysts work with a brilliant finance professor to create an in-depth report of the latest capital markets theories and analytical models. It is 172 pages long. Unimpressed, their clients hire their own economist to refute the analysis.
“When time is spent together on issues that are truly important to both parties, the relationship deepens and grows. There is increased emotional resonance. You become more relevant to each other.”
The consultants’ boss asked his failed team, “What have you learned?” They realize they should have spent more time with the firm’s executives. The boss digs for more. One consultant concludes that the consulting team would have needed “to work at different levels – rational, emotional – to win them over.” The team members realize they should have been more inclusive.
Surprisingly, many people don’t learn from experience, according to social science research. People tend to claim credit for their successes and to blame others or external circumstances for their failures. Get specific and ask, “What did you learn about…?” Use this power question: 1) when someone shares experiences or events; 2) after meetings, interviews or visits; and 3) when you’re mentoring or coaching someone.
“It’s not about you. If you do all the talking, you learn nothing about the person.”
“Can You Tell Me More?”
Use this question almost every day and everywhere. It serves as a general prompt to drive a deeper conversation. Margaret is the vice president of the private banking division. She’s been trying to meet a client who has a business bank account for more than a year. He finally agrees to a lunch date. She arrives first and greets him with a warm, friendly handshake.
“The lesson here is about the capacity of potent and formidable questions to unleash a cascade of innermost feelings and vibrant conversation. Conversation that is intimate, personal and memorable.”
Throughout lunch, Margaret tells her client how long she’s worked for the bank and how much she enjoyed her recent vacation in Hawaii. She shows him pictures of her grandchild. She concludes with, “It is so special having this time with you. I’ve really looked forward to meeting you.” But she fails to ask the client anything of importance to him, such as, “Why did you decide to go into business for yourself?” or “How can we do a better job of meeting your needs?” She asks the client nothing about his goals or how the bank can help him. In other words, Margaret wasted a great sales opportunity by constantly trying to sell herself.
“Can You Tell Me About Your Plans?”
Eight senior executives at one of the world’s largest financial institutions meet to hear presentations from three consulting companies competing to work with the bank’s CEO and his team – a coveted, prestigious assignment in the management consulting industry.
“What do you think? – four potent and irresistible words…People want to be heard!”
Westervelt, the lead partner of one consulting firm, gives a flawless, hour-long presentation demonstrating his fluency with the bank’s business, its competition, and so forth. After hearing the presentations, the executives discuss their options. Peter, the head of global corporate banking, is furious. He says there’s no way he’d hire Westervelt and his firm. “He doesn’t listen. He has no empathy!” The CEO asks Peter to elaborate. “They asked us almost no questions about our strategy and our plans. About the choices we’ve made.”
“People crave two things above all else. They seek appreciation and they want someone to listen to them.”
Jennifer, a 30-year veteran of the bank and its chief human resources officer, later tells the CEO that Westervelt never made eye contact with her and failed to acknowledge her presence. “It makes you wonder,” Jennifer says. “What would it be like working with them day-to-day? I don’t think their style is aligned with our culture.”
When asked if Westervelt could have done anything differently to win their business, the CEO said all he needed to do was to ask about their plans. Great listening requires humility, curiosity and self-awareness. Ask people their plans when you need to understand their intentions and priorities, and definitely before you tell them what you think their plans should be.
“‘Sometimes less is more?’ I’m reminded that Louie Armstrong said that it’s not the notes that make the music – it’s the space between the notes.”
“If the Circumstances Were Turned Around, How Would You Like to be Treated?”
John Kirkman, the owner of a small manufacturing company, became distraught when he found that Bob, his chief financial officer, had stolen $100,000 by depositing company checks into his personal account.
Bob had worked in senior management for John for 16 years. They’re close friends. John confronted Bob, who admitted nothing. John realized that he “had been asking a lot of vague, weasel, open-ended questions. And getting weasel answers in response.” So John asked Bob bluntly, “What I need now is a direct answer – yes or no. Did you steal the money? Yes or no?” Bob confessed. John didn’t know whether to call the police, fire Bob immediately or give him a day to “resign” quietly. John considered the circumstances of Bob’s life. He knew Bob supported his household. John wondered what he would do if the circumstances were reversed.
Considering how a scenario would change if the circumstances were reversed forces you to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. John realized that, in this situation, he would hope for another chance. Therefore, John promised not to tell Bob’s wife or anyone at the company what happened. He gave Bob 120 days to repay the money. Bob complied and worked harder than before; he eventually celebrated his 25th anniversary with the company. This power question offers a better alternative to the Golden Rule (Do unto others as you would have them do unto you), because asking it helps you examine “every possible solution.”
“What’s Your Question?”
A consultant needed help dealing with a difficult client. He called a friend and mentor and talked about his prospective client for several minutes. Finally, the mentor asked, “What’s your question?” The consultant replied, “How do I deal with a client who is over-controlling and trying to micromanage me?” When someone approaches you for advice, but is vague and doesn’t know how to get to the point, follow the mentor’s example by asking, “What’s your question?”
“What’s the Most Important Thing We Should Be Discussing Today?”
Kathleen is the co-chair of a large professional services firm. A consultant sets up a meeting with her weeks ahead of time. Twenty minutes into the meeting, he notices that she’s fidgeting and checking her phone. He realizes he’s lost her, so he asks her, “What’s the most important thing we should be discussing today?”
She tells him that her team is not “on board” or “getting it.” He responds: “What’s not working?” They spend 30 minutes discussing issues that Kathleen has with her team. She asks to meet again. Six months later, after Kathleen makes major changes to her team, the consultant works with each member individually. In the end, his relationship with his client deepens because of this one simple question. Use the what’s-the-most-important-thing question during meetings with your boss or with clients, when making a sales pitch, or with your spouse or partner.