Power Questions for Better Business Relationships

Personal connection, likeability and trustworthiness are increasingly important, and business people create these qualities not by knowing the right answers, but by asking the right questions. That’s the opinion of author and consultant Andrew Sobel who (along with coauthor, Jerold Panas) wrote Power Questions: Build Relationships, Win New Business, and Influence Others.

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“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,” Sobel explains. “Telling creates resistance. Asking creates relationships.” His book lists dozens of questions that “light fires under people, challenge their assumptions, help them see problems in productive new ways, and inspire them to bare their souls.” Here are some ways questions can transform professional and personal relationships.

Turn arms-length business relationships into personal relationships. “When a relationship is all business and there is no real personal connection, it lacks heart and soul,” says Sobel. “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.”

Sobel tells the story of a senior partner in a top consulting firm who had to meet with the CEO of a major manufacturing client. Other consultants were nipping at their heels to get more business from this company. This powerful, confident CEO, who was in his 60s and near retirement, had seen hundreds of consulting reports. At the end of a routine briefing, the senior partner paused and asked the CEO, “Before we break up, can I ask you a question?” The CEO nodded. The partner said, “You’ve had an extraordinary career. You have accomplished so much, starting at the very first rung of the ladder, on the manufacturing floor. As you look ahead—is there something else you’d like to accomplish? Is there a dream you’ve yet to fulfill?”

The CEO was nearly stunned. He thought for a moment and replied, “No one has ever asked me that question. No one.” And then he began talking about a deeply held dream he had for his retirement. That question was the turning point in building a long-term, deeply personal relationship.

Make the conversation about the other person. 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 of Sobel’s power questions is, What do you think? Another is, Can you tell me more?

Cut through the “blah, blah, blah” to 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?

“This is a tough-love question,” admits Sobel. “People will resist it—often strenuously. But you must ask it. It forces them to take the first step toward clarifying what the issue is and what advice they really need from you. You’ll reduce the amount of posturing people do and will move faster toward an authentic conversation.”

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