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The Science of Asking Great Questions

Last updated 8/5/2010

Asking questions is a science and an art. The art is found in your tone of voice, your body language, and your remarks before asking your questions. The science is found in how you construct your question. So in this article we're going to get pretty technical, and we have to, because technique is everything in the science of asking great questions. 

When constructing your questions, you can begin with a verb or with an interrogative. The verb-led question is just that, a question that begins with a verb, such as: Should you do this? Is this what you want? Can you accomplish this? There are three possible answers to these questions: “yes,” “no,” and “maybe.” Yes, I should do this. No, this isn’t what I want. Maybe, I can accomplish this.

“Maybe” is a worthless answer that gives you nothing to work with. It muddies the water. It wastes time. It may even kick up some emotions that you don’t want. She said “maybe,” but did she really mean “yes”? Maybe we’re almost there! And “yes” itself can be a real double-edged sword, as in when you get an answer like the following: Yes, Ralph, I do need this. Just give me a call next week. I need to check with the boss. Such a “yes” is worthless.

Since “yes” is dicey and since “maybe” is inherently worthless, you’re left with “no” as the only answer to a verb-led question that stands a pretty good chance of really telling you something. With only one worthwhile answer out of three possibilities, it follows that verb-led questions are risky at best and often just a waste of time. That’s one problem with them.

Another problem is that verb-led questions often seem to people as if you’re driving for a “yes.” Can you accomplish this? This question seems to be calculated to take away the right to answer no. It is subtly manipulative. Most people don’t really want to say no in the first place, so if your question makes it even harder for them to say no when that’s what they want to say, you have created an uncomfortable, defensive atmosphere, and this does you no good at all.

Imagine this scenario. You’re selling furniture at a garage sale and someone comes up and asks about the overstuffed sofa with the shiny spot in the middle of each cushion. You provide all necessary information. You chat with the person for 20 minutes. Your patience is running thin. You blurt out, “Do you want to take this sofa home? Can you say yes to this purchase?” Yet another terrible verb-led question. As a direct result, you can forget that sale. Never frame a question that seems to be taking away the right to say no. You lose people, and you deserve to.

Let’s go back to the garage sale, this time to the table with the old stereo equipment. A collector saunters up and points at the eight-track.

“Does it still work?”
“You bet.”
“Sure. I played Rubber Soul last night.”
“Are you the only owner? Did you get it new?”
“Yeah, right here in town—the old stereo store that used to be on Elm.”
The collector asks if he can pick up the eight-track. Of course. You then ask, “What else would you like to know?”

Now, this simple question spawns some interesting dynamics. Mainly, it is a very comforting question for someone to hear. It demonstrates that you, the seller, have no off-putting neediness. I, the collector, feel okay, because you are at my service. You are certainly not closing the sale, attempting to confuse me, or any of that negative stuff. Hearing this question, why would I have any reason to get defensive?

Just as important, this interrogative-led question does not have a quick answer. It cannot be answered with yes, no, or maybe. The answer will necessarily be more extended than that. In my answer, I may provide some useful information, some emotion, or some insight. The odds are pretty good that my answer will contain something you can work with.

And who now has control in this conversation? You, who have asked the question “What else would you like to know?” and listened to the answer? Or the collector, who’s now doing the talking? You, the listener, have the control. If you want to maintain maximum control—and you do, of course—let the other people talk as much as they want.

One remarkably powerful, simple question is this one: “What would you like me to do?” Here, you invite the other side to indulge in what’s likely to be a weakness for talking. The answer allows you to enter their world and their vision. You may well hear something like “Well, I need you to help me solve this problem." Or you may hear a question in reply, one that may give you a world of information and that may even lay out the whole problem on the other side: “Well, if you started today, how long would it take you to have it ready?” “How long?” So the timing of the completion could be a problem!

Whose world are you entering when you ask, “What’s the biggest challenge you face right now?” The other person’s world: “Inventory control. The market is changing so fast. One week widgets seem to be in with the kids, the next week they won’t touch them. I don’t know what to do.” How’s that for fast progress in the information-gathering department? Good questions deliver such results time and time again. It’s amazing.

Now, have you noticed the main difference between these good questions and any of the previous bad questions? The good ones are led by an interrogative, not by a verb. “Who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” “why,” “how,” and “which”: These famous interrogatives are the safest questions in a negotiation.

The interrogative-led questions will paint a vision that will move the negotiation forward without the pitfalls of verb-led questions. They don’t challenge the other party. They don’t put them on the defensive. They elicit information and build vision. You have to be diligent and careful with all questions— with every word you utter—but the verb-led questions are almost all downside, while interrogative-led questions are a key means of discovery. They elicit details. They ensure thoroughness. They help the other side as well as us see what hasn’t been seen and understood before.

Consider the following set of verb-led questions juxtaposed with a corresponding set of interrogative-led questions. In every case, which is better?

  • “Is this the biggest issue we face?” versus “What is the biggest issue we face?”
  • “Is this proposal tight enough for you?” versus “How can I tighten this proposal for you?”
  • “Can we work on delivery dates tomorrow?” versus “When can we work on delivery dates?”

This rule about interrogative-led questions is not rocket science. Negotiators have been taught for decades to ask open-ended questions, and interrogative-led questions are simply one type of open-ended question. I emphasize the “interrogative-led” concept over the “open-ended” concept because I’ve found that it’s easier to understand and to follow in the heat of a negotiation. Generally speaking, the negotiator who frames interrogative-led questions is on the right track.

Master questions and you’ll understand how a successful negotiation really does take place in the world of the other side, not in your world. You’ll understand the necessity of creating a vision for the other side. And then a very strange and welcome phenomenon will follow: Your own neediness will fall away. You’ll feel free as a bird in a negotiation.

Copyright © 2006 by Jim Camp. From the book NO: The Only Negotiating System You Need for Work and Home by Jim Camp, published by Crown Business, a division of Random House, Inc. Reprinted with permission.