During this turbulent time, relationships are being stressed. However, this period also presents extraordinary opportunities to deepen our most important connections, both professionally and personally. Powerful questions are one of our best tools for doing this. These are recurring theme in my newest book, It Starts with Clients: Your 100-Day Plan to Build Lifelong Relationships and Revenue, in which one of the 14 client development challenges—Week 10—is called Using Power Questions.
A few years ago, I spoke at the annual executive offsite for a large corporation. Afterwards, I was invited to hear the CEO’s state-of-the-firm speech. He presented for about 20 minutes, and then asked if there were any questions. Hands shot up among the 150 top executives in the audience. The questions, however, were pedantic and nitpicky, and the CEO was clearly bored by them.
So I raised my hand. “Bill, I’m curious—of all the initiatives you have going on, what are you personally most excited about?” He smiled, and then waxed enthusiastically for nearly five minutes about a very special project he was deeply passionate about. Afterwards, as we were all leaving the auditorium, he approach me from behind and grabbed my shoulder. “Great question, Andrew,” he shouted over the background din. “A very revealing question.” He walked away, but then suddenly paused and turned around, adding: “Give me a call.” I did, and that was the start of what became a great, long-term relationship with him and his company.
I asked Bill what I call a dreams question—it was simple, but very personal in nature. A good dreams question can often stimulate a truly rich, deep conversation. You’ll see, below, what these look like.
What is a Power Question
So what separates good questions—what I call “Power Questions”—from average questions?
Here are six characteristics of Power Questions:
First, they’re usually open-ended. They invite discussion, not a yes-or-no answer. Instead of “Are you concerned about the new regulations?” ask, “How are you being impacted by the new regulations?”
Second, they are fresh and even surprising—they make the other person stop and think. Drop clichéd questions like “What keeps you up at night?” More interesting would be “What gets you up in the morning?”
Third, power questions focus the conversation on the right issues, and in particular, on what the client is interested in. Try asking, “What’s the most important issue you’d like to discuss this morning?”
Fourth, power questions help you get to the bigger picture. Sometimes it’s a “Why?” question. When you ask, “Why have you decided to launch this initiative, now?” you move the conversation up a level.
Fifth, questions help you uncover important information about the other person. I sometimes invite clients to talk about their careers by asking questions like, “How did you get your start?” or “I’m curious, as you think about your career, what has your most important leadership experience been, and what did you learn?”
A final and important function of a power question is that it can create buy-in and ownership. If you make a declaration like, “You have poor teamwork,” you will often create resistance and defensiveness. Whereas the question, “How do you feel about your level of teamwork?” creates engagement. If you do this—turn statements into questions—the other person will sometimes step up and admit, “We’re not where we should be.” Then, you’re off to the races.
There many different types of power questions you can use. Your selection will depend on the circumstances and your objectives. That said, to help you focus, I’d like to share a simple framework that many of my clients have found extremely helpful. I call it the Power Questions Matrix. It illustrates four directions you can take your questions.
The first dimension contrasts implementation with the big picture. The second looks at the rational versus the emotional. If you put these together, you get a matrix with four quadrants, like this:
In the lower left execution quadrant, you’ll ask rational or analytical questions about how something is going to be implemented. These could be as simple as, “How do you plan to do that?”, “What is your timing?”, or “Which areas of the organization will be affected by this?”. For many people, this is the most comfortable quadrant. It allows them to stay within their expertise and delve into the details. It’s a safe quadrant.
But often, you also need to move up to the strategy quadrant in order to really understand the context for what your client is trying to accomplish. In this quadrant, you’re still focused on rational or analytical questions, but now you’re talking about the big picture. You might ask questions to get at higher-level goals, such as “Why do you want to do that?”, “How are you aligning your priorities to your new strategy?”, or “What part of your strategy is this particular initiative supporting?” On a personal level, you might ask a friend, “How does this idea you’re considering support your longer-term personal goals?”
Facts tell and emotions sell. So you must also understand the emotional or personal side of the issue. In the upper-right Dreams quadrant you might ask questions like, “What legacy do you hope to leave here?”, “What are you working on right now that you’re most excited about?”, or, “You’ve achieved so much in your career so far…is there something else you’d like to accomplish?”
Finally, in the lower right Fears quadrant you need to ask questions about concerns, anxieties, and frustrations—things that could get in the way of dreams and aspirations. Right now, there is a lot of fear and anxiety going around due to the current health crisis. So you might start with some very personal questions like, “How are you doing?” , “How is your family?”, and “How are you coping?”. Only later should you then get into more nuts-and-bolts questions like “As you think about your implementation program, what do you wish were going faster?” or “What do you think is the biggest risk to this initiative?”.
Whether you are talking to a client, a colleague, or a family member, consider using these four quadrants to help develop your own Power Questions. In a work setting, I suggest you spend more of your time preparing your questions before meetings, and a little less time perfecting the memo or PowerPoint slides you want to present. It takes work and effort to develop strong questions, but it’s well worth it.
Note from Bob: When I launched LeadingWithQuestions.com, almost 8 years ago, Andrew Sobel and Jerry Panas were the very first authors who gave me permission to “Excerpt” from their just released book “Power Questions.” They not only extended their kind permission – they encouraged me! They became two of my biggest fans! They encouraged everyone in the shadow of their influence to subscribe! I will be forever grateful for their friendship!
Andrew’s just-released book, his ninth, is called It Starts with Clients: Your 100-Day Plan to Build Lifelong Relationships and Revenue. Andrew’s books have been translated into 21 languages, and include the international bestsellers Clients for Life and Power Questions, co-authored with Jerry Panas. You can buy It Starts with Clients, and also download Andrew’s free 46-page Client Relationship Growth Guide by clicking “HERE”
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