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Ask, Don’t Tell:

Nine Ways Power Questions Help Us Build Better Business Relationships

By: Andrew Sobel

Just a few years ago, globalization was in full swing, and the world seemed to be bursting with an infinite supply of business. All this bounty 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—the kind that reduce risk. This is true of customers but also vendors, employees, and other business partners. The days of getting in, making money, and moving on to the next guy are over. 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. And that begins by asking the right questions.

Asking questions 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 professional and personal relationships:

1. 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.

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 important power question is, “What do you think?” Another is, “Can you tell me more?”

When you make a 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.

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 proceeds to spend ten 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?”

4. They help people clarify their thinking. Instead of saying, “We need to improve our customer service!” I suggest 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 say more about what you mean by ‘innovation’? 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’?”

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, ask this question: “What is the most important thing we should be discussing today?” 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.

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?” You may have to ask it several times to get the other person to really open up about what motivates him or her. 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.

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. It’s one that, albeit indirectly, 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 someone to stretch their limits and do their very best work.

8. 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 can 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. Ever seen someone answer the wrong question? It’s painful to watch. Asking a clarifying question can save you huge embarrassment. 

9. They can salvage a disastrous conversation. My coauthor, Jerry Panas, recalls the time he asked a man for a million-dollar donation to his alma mater’s College of Engineering. Though he knew better, the author failed to gain rapport and explore the potential donor’s true motivations before jumping in with the big request. When the man rebuked Jerry for his presumptuousness, he 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 the donor 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. Asking, “Do you mind if we start over?” will disarm the other person and 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 us. It’s a huge relief to know that you don’t have to be quick, clever, or witty—that you don’t have to have all the answers.

All business interactions are human interactions. Moreover, part of being human is acknowledging that you don’t know everything about everything—and that you certainly don’t know everything about the other person and his or her needs. Questions help you understand these things more deeply.

The right questions unleash a cascade of innermost feelings and vibrant conversations. They 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. 


About the Author(s)

Andrew Sobel is the most widely published author in the world on client loyalty and the capabilities required to build trusted business relationships. His first book, the bestselling Clients for Life, defined an entire genre of business literature about client loyalty. His other books include Making Rain and the award-winning All for One: 10 Strategies for Building Trusted Client Partnerships.For 30 years, Sobel has worked as both a consultant to senior management and as an executive educator and coach. Sobel is an acclaimed keynote speaker who delivers idea-rich, high-energy speeches and seminars at major conferences and events. For more information, visit http://andrewsobel.com

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