To maximize the value of the following consultative questioning skills, first decide you genuinely want to know the answer to your question from the other person’s point of view. This can be much tougher than you think. But with practice comes mastery.
The most effective way to present these skills is by using a bit of verse from the famous nineteenth-century English poet Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “The Elephant’s Child”:
“I keep six honest serving men
They taught me all I knew
Their names are what and where and when
And how and why and who”
This stanza provides us with the six words we need to find out anything about anyone at any time, by using them in the form of questions. However, not all six of the words, when used in the form of a question, are equal in their power. Yes, that’s right, power. Words do, in fact, have varying degrees of power.
Power Hierarchy of Questions
Of the six, what, where, when and who are the least powerful when used in the form of a question. (Now I feel like we’re playing Jeopardy.)
The 4 Ws
What, where, when and who are fact questions. They yield answers that are nouns — people, places, things and points in time. Look at these examples.
What is the title of this poem? “The Elephant’s Child.”
Who wrote this poem? Rudyard Kipling.
When did he write it? Nineteenth century.
Where did he write it? England.
We tend to naturally gravitate to these questions for one reason: Their answers tend to be short, factual and to-the-point, and require little sophistication of listening skills. These questions tell us what we want or think we need to know, rather than what the other person may really wish to be, or in some cases, is not telling us.
In the early 1960s there was a highly rated television show titled Dragnet about two Los Angeles police detectives, partners Joe Friday and Bill Gannon. Regardless of the situation, whether conducting an interview with a hysterical crime victim, mouthy thug, or long-winded witness, Friday’s famous line was always delivered in the same deadpan tone, week after week, in every episode: “Just the facts, ma’am.”
Friday had neither the time nor the inclination to hear anything other than the facts required to locate, arrest and convict the bad guy and keep the streets of Los Angeles safe another week. Joe Friday was, like most of us, in a hurry, and thus only interested in answers to surface-level questions, defaulting to who, what, where and when. Then again, he only had thirty minutes, including time for commercials.
The two most powerful questions, by far, are how and why, because they cannot be easily answered with a fact!
How and why questions require some form of thought and opinion on the part of the person being asked. Most great interviewers and interrogators start with how and why questions. Then, if need be, you can use the fact yielding what, where, when and who to corroborate or refute the opinion-based how and why questions.
The absolute most powerful of the two is definitely why.
Why? Great question! Why delivers the highest level of thought and, in many cases, emotionally driven opinions, beliefs, desires, wants, needs or fears. And, sadly, it is often the question we are too hesitant to ask.
Misguidedly, we may consider asking questions too challenging, deep, probing, or, in some cases, disrespectful or rude. However, when asked from a position of genuine desire to help another through the performance of the Platinum Rule, why will earn you the respect, confidence and even admiration of the person you serve.
Taking the Lead
Regardless of age, experience or expertise, most of us feel a momentary anxiety when speaking to or meeting another person for the first time. For me, this anxiety is rooted in my mother’s admonition, “You have but one chance to make a first impression, and it lasts a lifetime.”
In professional selling, we know this to be the gospel truth, as most people have determined in the first twenty seconds of meeting you whether they will engage with you or not. Fair, absolutely not. Truth, absolutely!
In recognition of this fact and in intentionally striving to heroically serve others, after initial introductions, open a business meeting with asking a how question in the present tense, reflecting their current point in time.
For example, in business, ask, “How’s business?” If you’re a health care provider, you can ask, “How’s your health today?” The how question effectively does two things: First, it places the focus and importance on the other person, and, second, it encourages an opinion-based answer rather than a fact. Most importantly, it puts you in a position of leading in asking the questions with the intent to help the other person.
Notice that we do not ask, “How are you today?” or “How are you feeling?” or “How ya doin’?” These mundane questions evoke nothing more than an automaton response of “Good,” “Fine,” “Not so good,” “I don’t know,” or “Great.”
More important than the specific words we use in any question is projecting the underlying desire to genuinely know the answer. This is effectively done with appropriate tone and facial expressions, not with the brilliance of the words we choose.
Time: The Fourth Dimension
After establishing our role as the leader in asking the questions, use the power of the dimensions of time — past, present and future — by phrasing how questions through corresponding verb tenses. (I promise, no grammar lessons.) This allows us to gain an understanding and appreciation of where the other person has come from, where they are today, and where they aspire to be in the future.
Let me share with you an illustration of this technique, building upon the foregoing business example:
“How’s business?” (Present)
“How was business?” (Past)
“How would you like business to be?” (Future)
Oddly enough, of the three dimensions of time, most people focus on the past and present in the questions they ask, and rarely explore the future, instead preferring to project their preconceived beliefs or understandings on the other individual. One of the greatest techniques to set up the future tense how question is to use what I call the runway phrase: “So, in a perfect world. . . ” This phrase removes all preconditions and allows the respondent to not only provide an opinion, but to engage their imagination in creating their vision of a future aspirational state, which you will help them achieve.
For example: “So tell me, Bill, in a perfect world, how would you envision your business?” In this example, using perfect and envision is intentional, as the words allow the person to create an image of what perfection would look like. Once the vision is stated, engage to help make the vision a reality.
Now let me show you how to use the power of combining how and why. How serves as a wedge that opens the door to the deeper-seated, and often unasked, why. When employed with a genuine sense of service to others, the following technique is the most powerful tool I have found. But before I share it, be forewarned that if its usage does not come from the heart in a genuine desire to help another, it will severely damage and, in all likelihood, kill a relationship.
Very simply, after having asked a how question (especially in aspiration-revealing future tense), pause and say nothing while looking at the other person, and then gently and genuinely ask why. The secret to this technique is not to utter another sound for however long it takes the person to reply. It may seem like an eternity, as you listen to your heart pound or the seconds ticking on your watch — and in all likelihood, it will feel that way until you become comfortable with the silence — but you absolutely must not speak. You’re allowing the other person to think deeply and reflectively about their true underlying desires before answering your question.
Unfortunately, the majority of us fail to take the time to truly, thoughtfully consider the real why behind what we have, what we are or what we want to do. Don’t be surprised if this question is often answered with a statement like, “You know, that’s a really good question.” Shut up and smile! You’ve just been paid a huge compliment and are rapidly transforming into sage and counselor. You’ve taken the first steps toward heroism in service to this person.
In conducting seminars and giving speeches at conferences, this is where some people begin to squirm in their seats, and the bold will say, “This sounds a little manipulative to me, and I’m not sure I feel comfortable asking people about their hows, much less their whys.” This is a legitimate point predicated upon behavior patterns conditioned in us to extinguish the innate inquisitive nature we have in childhood, when we continually ask, “Why?”
Consultative communication techniques are not manipulative in and of themselves. They are proven effective in a wide array of situations, from casual conversation to formal interrogations, and are based upon open, honest communication with another human being. They do not use any form of deceit or coercion. Most importantly, they are used in our effort to help another person gain insight and understanding to the underlying hows and whys regarding what they have done, are doing, or aspire to do. And it is from and through that sense of service to others that we can rest easy and with a clear conscience.
Wisdom: A clever man is known by the answers he gives. A wise man is known by the questions he asks.
Take the time to craft and carefully practice an arsenal of how and why questions that evolve in depth and quality through application and experience.
This is an excerpt from the first book “BREAKAWAY – The Secret of Limitless Selling Success: Heroic Service“.