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Power Questions: Better to Ask Than to Tell

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Back during the pre-recession days, globalization and the boom made it seem as if there would never be a shortage of business. All that bounty led us to take our clients for granted as we believed that prosperity would never end. Now, says author and consultant Andrew Sobel in his new book “Power Questions: Build Relationships, Win New Business, and Influence Others,” the old-fashioned “trusted relationship” is back in style.

“In this post-Madoff era of unpredictability and suspicion, people are looking for deeper, more intimate and more engaged relationships—the kind that reduce risk,” explains Sobel. When times are tough and the future is uncertain, people want to put down roots and partner with people they truly like and trust.” Trust is the new litmus test, according to Sobel. And we can create trust not by knowing the right answers but by knowing the right questions.

Sobel says that asking clients questions and prompting them to consider things they perhaps have not considered before is a far more effective technique than forcefully stating your own position and trying to talk them into seeing things your way. “Telling creates resistance. Asking creates relationships.” And builds trust.

“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 questions make the client the focus of the conversation. That’s why one of Sobel’s power questions is What do you think? Another is Can you tell me more?

In the book, Sobel describes an anecdote about a 19th century woman who was fortunate to meet two great British statesmen, Gladstone and Disraeli. “When asked to compare the two men she says, ‘After my dinner with Mr. Gladstone, I thought he was the cleverest man in the world.’ And then she adds, ‘After my dinner with Mr. Disraeli, I felt as though I were the cleverest woman in all of England!’ ”

Make yourself the focus of your conversation and your client may indeed think you clever, “but you will not build their trust. You will not learn about them. You will squander the opportunity to build the foundations for a rich, long-term relationship,” asserts Sobel.

One of the greatest benefits of asking questions is that it removes the onus of having to be clever, engaging or all-knowing. “All business interactions are human interactions,” Sobel says. “And part of being human is acknowledging that you don’t know everything about everything—and that you certainly don’t know everything about the other person and her needs.”

But perhaps the greatest benefit of asking the right questions is that it allows you to get to another person’s innermost thoughts on an issue. With effective questioning, you can circumvent the irrelevant and get to what’s truly meaningful, in both a relationship sense and a business sense. “They make people like you, trust you, and want to work with you—and once you’ve achieved that, the battle is already won.”

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