How to Ask Powerful Follow-Up Questions

Differentiate your credibility by how you respond to what clients tell you

The best advisors are adept at asking powerful follow-up questions.  They  use a well framed follow-up to signal that they not only heard the previous answer, but have processed it to a preliminary understanding, and are now seeking to go farther and deeper to understand the speaker’s full meaning.

Respond to the listener’s expectation

If you’re having a serious discussion with someone, they want to know that you’re really engaged in what they are saying and want to know more.  Your caring approach to listening makes them feel heard, and that you are respecting their knowledge.

The speakers feel honored, and they want to continue the dialogue.  This not only creates a link with the listener but opens the door for deepening the conversation and the underlying relationship.

What’s my investment?

All of these advantages come at a price.

Skillful tennis players anticipate where their opponent will return the volley and begin moving there as their opponent gets into position for their hit.  That form of in-the-instant judgment comes after years of playing, and thousands of volleys.  The equivalent experience from a consultant comes from years of learning and practicing their craft.

Many of the readers of this piece have that level of experience in their domain.  The trick is to be intentional about taking advantage of it as the conversation flows back and forth.  Newcomers to a domain can prepare by tapping into  experienced colleagues in advance of their meeting.  They can ask about the most critical topics likely to come up, and how those topics best relate to customer those challenges.

Steps for great follow-up questions

  1. Do your homework on what you believe will be the critical topics you will discuss in this discussion.
  2. Take advantage of what you already have experienced in those areas to anticipate how the conversation might flow.
  3. If you don’t have direct experience, interview colleagues or available experts to understand the most critical aspects of the topics.
  4. Be realistic about how far you can take a topic.  Maybe ask a question about its relative importance, so .  At a level that you will at least you will know they are critical, without going into any depth.
  5. Invite a more experienced colleague to make the meeting with you.

Then, relax and play the match.  If you’ve done this  level of prep, you will most likely sound more credible than most of your competitors.

Great Reads:

HBR: The Surprising Power of Questions

Trust and Credibility: Research on the top five relating skills

Consulting customers more often buy complex solutions from people with trust and credibility.  

The research:

Since August of 2016, Ascendent Leadership and colleagues at Partners International and Discovery Consulting have teamed up to discover what successful consultants consider to be the critical soft skills to generate trust and credibility.  They are asking which of 20 commonly accepted consulting best practices rank as the most important in creating authentic advisory relationships.  (Original blog article introducing the research.)  While the research is continuing, we believe that the interim results are clear and reflect the consulting community.  (Top five have been unchanged since we hit about 30 responses.  The total number of responses is now approaching one hundred.)

Active Listening was the runaway favorite. 

Top Five Skills Driving Trust, Accountability

84 percent of respondents rated Active Listening as Critically Important, the top quartile of importance.  That was over 30 percentage points higher than the runner up, Asking Powerful Questions.

Here are the results for the top five, ranked by the number of total selections in the top quartile, as a percentage of total responses:Ability

It’s all about discovery!

All of the top five could easily fit under the umbrella term “discovery”:

Ability to establish trust and credibility through their focus and presence

Carrying on on a well-informed conversation about the clients’ business and their underlying success factors

Building on the trust/credibility foundation to discover how the consultant’s value can align with the  client’s most compelling opportunities and challenges

Epilogue:

When we invest the time to really understand our client before we interact, and continuously during our relationship, and when we …

Bring our best level of customer focus and presence to every interaction, and when we…

Are confident enough to open up with what makes sense to us, and what doesn’t, …

Then we earn our client’s trust and credibility, and …

Very often, their business.

How Perfect is Perfect Enough?

A business professor assigned a group of MBA students to visit a local custom door factory and observe some of the craftsmen there.

The students arrived at the factory and were assigned to observe an elderly and obviously very seasoned door carver.  They arrived in his work area, equipped with sharp pencils and clip boards.

The door carver paid scant attention to them.  He had already made quite a bit of progress on the door he was working on, and it was already a thing of great beauty. He would carve for a while, stand back and take it all in, and then go to a different part of the door and carve some more.

As he carved, the door became ever more ornate and beautiful.  The MBA students were amazed at his level of concentration and his obvious dedication to his work.

After a number of cycles of silently carving, standing back, assessing, choosing a new spot, and carving some more, one student asked, “How do you know when you’re finished?”

The woodcarver looked up, and said, “When they come to take it away.”

He was depending on someone else to decide  when the product was ready for market. He was deriving his joy from working at the margin and making the door ever more perfect.

“How perfect is perfect enough?”  It seems to me that answering that question  is a critical role that product managers and project managers must play in any complex project. The practitioners, the scientists, the engineers, and the door carvers want to keep carving. Successful projects require someone to make a business judgment.  What criteria define “perfect”?  When must it be done?  How much will people pay for it?  From those questions and judgments, the team creates the definition of when the door is done.

Here are some questions to consider when framing a complex project:

What value are we providing? Is it a door that will keep us warm in the winter, or a door that is a thing of beauty and makes us proud of our home?

Who are we serving?  The market for sturdy and energy efficient doors is significantly different than the market for beautiful doors.

When does the customer need it?  Is it October and getting cold?  Or is it spring and we’re fixing up a home for our daughter and her family to move into?

How perfect is perfect enough?  Am I letting perfectionism push the project completion past the point of diminishing returns and delaying the primary benefit?

Epilogue: 

Most complex enterprises require the right mix of the dreamers and artisans who take joy in the craft of the work and the pragmatists who want to serve a well-defined market with the right product,with just right set of features, at just the right time, and at just the right price.

Sometimes, those talents live inside the same skin.  Most of the time, they do not.

How are you showing up as an active listener? Five traps to avoid.

How often do you show up for a meeting or a discussion, only to find your partner in a complete state of disarray, heavily distracted by telephones, email, social media, other employees stopping in to interject a thought or start a new conversation, etc.  You get the picture!  Or worse yet, they show up unengaged, unprepared, and don’t seem to be understanding or caring about what you’re telling them.

Through our research of several behaviors that create high levels of trust and credibility, active listening has emerged as the most critical behavior (by a significant margin) in the eyes of our respondents. With that in mind, what can we as consultants and subject matter experts do to sharpen those critical listening skills?

Researchers in effective communications have coined the term “immediacy in communications” to describe the set of behaviors which either lay the framework for an effective dialogue, or sow the seeds of disaster.  Those researchers define immediacy as the way we signal our motivation to communicate freely, and the positive feelings we impart to our partner. These behaviors, both verbally and nonverbally, communicate that we are warm, involved, interested, and available to communicate.  Verbal immediacy factors include how we use pronouns – are we using I and you, or we and us; our use of formal or informal manners of addressing our partners that are comfortable and appropriate; how open we are to sharing personal information and creating vulnerability; our use of compliments to open the communication paths. Nonverbal behaviors might involve cues such as touch, eye contact, distance and personal space, smiling, tone of voice.  Most of our verbal and nonverbal behaviors tend to be instinctual.  We need to develop strong awareness of our own behaviors and the cues our partners are giving us , to sense how we are behaving and how it’s hitting our partner.

So, what are the traps, and how can we avoid them?

Here is a list of five behavior traps which work against our immediacy, and ultimately diminish the quality of  our listening and our understanding of our partner.  For each trap, we offer some ideas about how to avoid them.

Walking in without a true sense of engagement and honest motivation to help:  Your partner will quickly sense if you’re not truly interested and engaged, and will begin defending themselves against your disinterest.  Before the meeting, try to motivate yourself by finding some element of the situation, your relationship and past history with them, or a thread from a previous conversation that you can pick up on and pursue with interest.

Failing to align with the where they are coming from:   Examples might include failing to pick up on emotions that are working in them at the time, their point of view on the topic at hand, cultural differences and primary language.  Before the conversation, do some homework about them if you don’t know them well, what you might anticipate to be their emotional state, some appropriate due diligence on their business, their role, their background (LinkedIn is great for this).  You should walk in knowing what’s reasonable to know and ready to get to the meat of the discussion.

Failing to provide real-time feedback that lets them know you are really listening and have processed what they’ve told you:  Examples might be shallow feedback that either indicates you weren’t listening, or weren’t comprehending what they were trying to tell you.  Try “reframing” or summarizing in your own words not only what they said, but how they feel about it, what the impact is likely on them, and other comments that indicate that you thought through the implications of what they’ve told you.

Making it about you:    A common faux pas is interjecting a personal story, even if relevant, which breaks the flow of what your partner is trying to tell you. It comes across as if you have hijacked the discussion. Instead, show empathy and maybe an indication that you’ve had a similar experience, but avoid providing so much detail that you break the flow of their story.

Being too eager to prescribe ideas for how to fix the problem at hand:  We often listen just enough to find a common story in our repertoire and immediately go there, complete with detailed instructions about just how to solve their problem. Metaphorically this would be the same as the doctor prescribing brain surgery when we walk in complaining of a headache. We haven’t earned the right, yet, to go to prescribing action.  One common tip is, when you sense that you’re about to make a recommendation for action, shut that down, and substitute another question. Dig in on your discovery questions, until you are sure you understand the issue and they have validated that you understand it. When you get there, then you can invite them to move into brainstorming and action planning if they really want it.  When the active listening is really working, they often discover the path forward for themselves, through the dialogue.  Before you go to action planning, ask permission and validate that they are ready and wanting to go there.

Epilogue:

Active listening is not easy work, but it’s critical to build the relationship and the communications path which is critical to earning our partners’ trust and credibility.

Come to important conversations caring, committed, and prepared, and listen twice as much as you talk.

Five Dysfunctions of a Question: And How to Avoid Then

broken-question-501So many dysfunctions, so little time….

As a professional coach, I get to ask a lot of questions. For each brilliant one that makes things clear for my client and provides me deep insight into what they’re working on, I ask many others that are less than brilliant.

Here are some thoughts about five of the potholes I’ve driven into more times than I care to admit, my five dysfunctions.  I know that there are many, many, more, and would love to hear about your favorite ones. Write me a comment.  Make it a conversation!

1.  Asking from undetermined or inflexible status

Symptoms:

In his excellent book, Humble Inquiry (Schein 2013), Edgar Schein defines three forms of humility which stem from three separate forms of relative status between the asker of the question and the receiver of the question. In a more traditional environment, we naturally give status to someone who is more experienced, more wealthy, born to a higher social class, or some other preordained reason for considering that person and a higher status than our own. Schein calls that first form of humility “basic humility”.  In these situations, we may not feel that we have the right to ask the tough questions.

In cultures more like those of current European or North American cultures, we tend to grant status based on what other people have achieved. For example, if someone who has achieved a higher academic level or a professional than we have, we may refer to them as “Dr.”,  “Professor”, “Reverend” or some other title of respect.  Schein calls that “optional humility”.  Similar to basic humility, this status difference may inhibit our level of curiosity and candor.  We don’t want to look uninformed or less competent.

The third form he calls “here and now” humility. This humility is driven by a short-term dependence by the question asker on the answer giver.   Often, in situations where there is mutual need, that dynamic may shift back and forth, as each participant is asking questions relative to their specific need. There is a potential pothole here, if both participants don’t come to the conversation understanding their need, understanding how the other person can help them meet their need, and if they are not sufficiently flexible to give and take humility as the conversation demands. Said another way, they are stuck in some pre-existing status.

How to avoid them:

Know what you need and ask questions to understand what others need.

Know what you want to meet your need.

Be aware of any status bias you might have, and be confident in your questions.

2. Asking from lack of presence

Symptoms:

Ever catch someone zoning out, and then struggling to respond to a question, and pose another?  Maybe they were distracted, continuously checking their watch, or noticing when their phone vibrated or the text sound was going off?  Did they answer a question you didn’t ask?  Not keeping pace with what you’ve said or the question you posed?  Leave you wondering where they were, or what they were thinking?  Pretty clear that they weren’t tuned into you and the conversation you were trying to hold.

How to avoid them:

If this is you, make sure you clear your calendar, turn your phone off, and otherwise clear your mind and your environment to be fully there.  If you can’t, be honest, and ask to reschedule.

If this is your partner, don’t be a victim!  Let them know you notice that they must have something important going on and offer to reschedule.  If they’re not there, shame on them.  If you sit there, fail to graciously notice their inattention, and offer them an escape route, then shame on you!

3.  Asking from a fixed point of view

Symptoms:

You go in with a fixed mindset.  You know you’re right.  You’re fishing for the answer you want.  Maybe you’ve prepared a few clever questions that lead to that answer.   You already know the answer to the question and you’re using a question to set up a dialogue stream that you’re hoping for.  Some of your questions sound like they come from a legal drama.  You feel like you want to argue with them because they’re not taking the bait and coming to your conclusion.

How to avoid them:

Focus more on asking from curiosity to understand something you don’t.

It’s ok to have a goal for the conversation, but it works out best if you ask questions that lead to better understanding.  If you understand the questions, and the significance to your client’s objectives, you’re much more likely to be ready to follow the conversation, add value, and get them interested in you and how you can help them.

Once they’re engaged, and you’re well enough prepared to have an open conversation with them, good things happen.  The path forward is much more clear for you and them.  … and you haven’t had to pull them along by their nose.  

4.  Cross Examining

Symptoms:

You believe you’re right and you’re asking questions with the intent to prove them wrong.  Some of your questions sound like “gotcha” questions.  They are reacting to you defensively, as if they don’t trust you.  They act like they see you as argumentative.

How to avoid them:

Resist asking questions with the express intent of teeing up an opportunity to tell, to show how smart you are.

Allow for the fact that you may not be right, and that they may bring new truth to the discussion

5.  Asking without prior investment

Symptoms:

Your partner seems ill at ease, maybe guarded or defensive.  They’re answering in very short sentences or just yes or no.  They don’t seem to get the point of your questions, and ask you to restate them.  Your questions take longer than the answer.  Your questions seem to ramble, as if you’re framing them on the fly. Maybe you change directions in the middle of a question, back up and start over.  You ask complex multi-part questions, maybe a hypothetical thrown in with some if-then logic for a grace note.

How to avoid them:

Invest in understanding your partner.  Have a plan for the questions you want to ask.  Would they see the relevance of the question to challenges they are likely facing?

Do some homework on their key industry trends and connect what you know about them to get a conversation started.

Frame your questions in an open form, without a clear answer, and something that will stretch them to answer.

Ask your question as simply as you can. Avoid rambling questions with multiple components.  Great questions have a little bit of set up, and then are very short, maybe just a few words.

Make the questions relevant to what they just told you.  The best questions flow logically out of something they said, so no set up is necessary.  Think of a tennis match where the ball is returned back and forth over the net smoothly.  Like a dance, the players are sensing where the flow is taking them.

Epilogue

When the flow of questions and the dialogue is natural and they’re opening up to you, that’s your sign that you have done your homework, you’ve earned their trust and credibility, and you’re ready to work with them to find the win-win.

Good Reads:

Schein, E. (2013). Humble Inquiry. Oakland, CA, Berrett-Koehler.