Excerpted from “Chapter Two” “Just Ask the Right Questions to Get What You Want” with the permission of the author – Professor Ian Cooper 

Have you asked for something and been told “no … we or you … can’t do that?” In business you may have been told:

  • “No we can’t get the delivery to you by then … we’re just rushed off our feet at the moment.”
  • “No that’s our lowest price … we can’t go any lower.”
  • “The computer system won’t allow that so we can’t do it.”

On more personal or social matters you may have been told by the restaurant you want to go to:

  • “No we’re full … we can’t fit you in.”
  • “No you can’t hold your meetings there because of the noise factor.”

You could always give in to these various responses OR you could try one of my two special question techniques, both of which have the power to change the focus of the person who is giving you a negative response and encourage them to look for positives.

When you hear ‘I can’t’ … try asking a question which begins with:

“If you were able to …”


“How can we or you…”

Let me give you some examples of both. You can then choose and adapt either to suit your purposes. These are real examples where I have been able to use them successfully:

“If you were able …” Technique

There is one particular restaurant where we like to eat every now and then on a Sunday. I rang them up and asked for a table, to be told:

“Sorry we’re full …  we’re really busy that day … we just can’t fit you in”.

You should have read enough of the book by now to know that a response like that merely sets me a challenge. So, I tried one of my own Golden Rules. I rang back, spoke to someone else and asked the same question. Guess what? On this occasion I got the same answer …“Sorry we’re full … we’re really busy that day …we just can’t fit you in”. Okay, I thought what else? I decided to unleash the “If you were able” technique. Here is what I said:

“Yes, I’m really pleased to hear you’re so busy … but if you were able to squeeze me in at some point during the whole lunchtime period, what sort of time would be the easiest for you?”

“ Well, about 1:30 would probably be the easiest?”

“That’s absolutely fine … thank you very much” I said “put me down for then and we’ll see you on Sunday”.

Mission accomplished!

But why did this work? It is very simple actually. I asked a question which changed their focus. From focusing on the negative of how full they were, I got them to apply their thinking to a positive issue … namely when would be the easiest to fit me in?

Does this work all the time? Of course not but it does work ‘some of the time’. Try it.

The “how can we or you technique?”

My wife belongs to a local amateur drama group and in addition to acting also directs for them. At a recent meeting at our home to discuss how many nights the cast would perform their next dramatic ‘masterpiece’ some strong views were expressed. My wife was pushing for four nights whilst others said, “we can’t do four nights because …”. After some heated and extremely dramatic debate, my wife lost the argument … (I can tell you that doesn’t happen often) … and the decision was taken to present the play for just three nights. Rather irritated by this, my wife sounded off to me in the kitchen where I was trying to keep a low profile, not get involved and generally mind my own business! Not something that comes naturally!

With fire in her eyes, she told me the tale. Now, not wanting my wife in a bad mood, I suggested she change the question and try out my “how can we?” technique. I told her what I had in mind and here’s what happened next. She went back into the meeting and said: “This decision about the number of nights … I’m still not really happy about it …let me ask you this … if we were going to run the show for four nights how can we make that happen? How can we overcome the problems you raised before?”

Instantly, one of the people who had been opposed to her earlier suggestion said. “Well we could ……. ” A solution was found and the show is now planned for the four nights my wife wanted!

This technique works because the question “how can we?” changes the focus of thinking. It encourages solutions and not objections. You’ll be amazed at how often it works.

Let’s have a look at some of those earlier negative responses and see if it is possible to apply the techniques to them:

“No we can’t get the delivery to you by then … we’re just rushed off our feet at the moment.”

Try: “If you were able to organise something for us to make sure we got the delivery in time … when would that be?” or “How can you re-structure your schedule to be able to help?”

“No that’s our lowest price … we can’t go any lower.”

Try: “if you were able to make some sort of gesture for us on price, even by just a small amount what sort of deal could you do?” or “how are you able to package the deal internally to be able to get our business?”

“The computer system won’t allow that so we can’t do it.”

Try: “How are you able to work around it, even if you have to do things manually?”

Again it won’t always work but it will some of the time. Try it and see!

iancooper-head-shotProfessor Ian Cooper has been described as a ‘serial achiever’, London based, he is an international author of 15 books with in 55 countries and 13 languages, including the successful and influential ‘Financial Times Guide To Business Development’, recently shortlisted for the best management / business book of the year award. In addition to advising hundreds of businesses and organizations of all sizes for over 30 years, Ian is also a successful entrepreneur who has created and run a number of successful businesses. With approximately 1000 professional speaking engagements Ian has inspired thousands of businesses and individuals with his light and engaging style to improve their own performance, get better results and make things happen.  You can connect with Ian on his website.


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