Four Words

April 25th, 2024 | Leadership
Four Words

Excerpted with the permission of the authors from Chapter Three of Power Questions:

“Four Words.  That’s all I want.  Four words.”

I’m in George’s office.  He’s pacing furiously.  Back and forth.  I’m beginning to see a clear path in his carpet.

George is Vice Chancellor of a major university in the Southeast.  In my book, he’s tops— and I’ve worked with a lot of university officers.

“Calm down,” I tell him.  “You’re going to explode.  Sit.

“What’s this business about the four words?” I ask him.  “What do you mean?”

The story begins.  Unfortunately, I’ve heard it before from George.  He had just come from a meeting of the senior officers of the university.  Nothing had changed.

“We had another one of those stupid meetings with the Chancellor.  We spent three full hours with him telling us what he thinks, what he wants to do, what his priorities are, and how he feels the university is doing under his leadership.”

George goes on about the Chancellor’s uninterrupted ranting.  I’m thinking that some folks aren’t hard of hearing.  They’re hard of listening.  That’s George’s Chancellor.

“If only once he would stop,” George goes on, “and ask us what we think.  Just once.  The four words I want him to say are, ‘What do you think?’”

George is correct.  Those four words, ‘What do you think,’ are powerful.  You are seeking an opinion.  The person you’re talking with wants you to listen.  You’ve heard about people who talk too much.  You never heard about a person who listens too much.

One evening, Thoreau wrote in his Journal: “The greatest compliment was paid to me today.  Someone asked me what I thought and actually attended to my answer.”

You cannot put on a pair of ice skates for the first time without looking a bit ridiculous.  The art of listening can be very slippery, also.  Those four words George refers to are an excellent start.  Ask, “What do you think about this?”  Or, “How do you feel about that?”

The list of questions like this could go on.  They are what we call open questions.  They can’t be answered with a simple yes or no.  They require an explanatory response.

Then you listen.  You listen intently.  It’s what the Quakers call devout listening.

This may seem counter-intuitive, but asking questions and then listening put you in control of the conversation.  Because your questions require an answer, you are in the position of power.  Good listeners are not only popular everywhere, but after a while, they learn a thing or two.

I was reminded of all of this the other day.  I came across a caricature of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in one of my old files.  He’s leaning on his cane, bent markedly forward, listening intently to two men, obviously homeless, who appear to have stopped him somewhere.

I can’t remember where I found the picture, but it’s a priceless treasure.  One of the men is small and scrappy-looking.  His hands are in his pockets and he’s leaning right into Roosevelt’s face.

The other man is larger and older.  He’s wearing an ancient, ragged coat and is unshaved.

Roosevelt’s regular grey fedora is somewhat smashed as always.  He is bent far forward.  It appears he is asking them what they think.  He is attentive to every word that is being said to him.  The caption underneath the photograph reads: “He knows how to ask how we feel.”

What Do You Think— four potent and irresistible words.  What we know is that the need to be heard turns out to be one of the most powerful motivating forces in human nature.  People want to be heard!

Studies are quite clear that we care most about people who listen to us.  People crave two things above all else.  They seek appreciation and they want someone to listen to them.

There is nothing more potent than these four words: what do you think.

By the way, the story about George has a happy ending.  The Chancellor ran and was elected Governor of the state.  George was selected to succeed him as Chancellor.  Oh, one thing more.  Don’t even try to guess.  It’s a real story but I’ve successfully changed the names.

Develop your reputation as a great listener. Draw others out and show you care about them by asking “What do you think?” 

Great Excerpt – So:

  • On what topics do you need to ask people, “What do you think?”  
  • Who do you need to ask, “What do you think?”  
  • When do you need to ask, “What do you think?”  
  • How often do you need to ask, “What do you think?”  

Would you like to know more about Power Questions?  Here is a really well done video overview Power Questions by Andrew Sobel:


Note from Bob:  Click HERE to order your “Power Questions” book today!

Jerold Panas & Andrew Sobel


Authors of Power Questions: Jerold Panas & Andrew Sobel – Jerold Panas (1928-2018) was the world’s leading consultant in philanthropy and the CEO of Jerold Panas, Linzy & Partners, the largest consulting firm in the world for advising nonprofit organizations on fundraising. Andrew Sobel is the leading authority on building long-term client and other professional relationships. He can be reached at Andrew Sobel.


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