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

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.

Time management triage – Three tips to find the win-win

It was 1999, and I had just been promoted to the role of a global sales manager for a
software and services business of a Fortune 50 company.   It was a new job for me with global scope and it was kicking my butt.  I was feeling very overwhelmed.

My response was to power through and just work harder and work longer hours in order to get everything done.

The problem with that was that I was spending every bit of energy on climbing my learning curve, and doing all the new tasks.  I was leaving nothing left for routine dialogue and check-ins with my team. I was starting to get feedback from my assistant that people were expressing frustration with my lack of availability to them.   Even understanding that frustration, I still didn’t have time to get ahead of the curve and fill that gap in the development of my team.

While I was coming up the learning curve I was cheating my team of the ability to grow as they helped me come up that curve. It’s not that they weren’t willing.  I just wasn’t letting them.  I was missing the opportunity to reframe my dilemma into a development opportunity for my team.

In retrospect, when you’re scrambling, remember what it was that made this new exciting and fun, that ignited passion in you.  Said another way, what it was that made this work important and meaningful to you and which you were uniquely qualified to do.  Everything else could be delegated, hopefully to someone who would experience it as a development opportunity.

Most of us have heard the Stephen Covey metaphor about rocks, pebbles and sand. (Covey 1989) Big rocks are the most important things in our lives:  core values, relationships, the activities which define us.  Pebbles:  the less important tasks.  Sand: the trivial many, things that fill up our time and don’t add much value.  Never heard it?  There is a cute YouTube video below – just remember that “golf balls” are big rocks, and don’t miss the plot twist at the end…   (Kay 2016)

Three tips to turn a situation where you are overwhelmed into a win-win:

Pay attention to what you felt were your unique qualifications for the new job.   Those qualify as some of your “big rocks”.   They are what got you here, and which will make you and your organization successful going forward.

Turn your attention to the developmental needs of your team. Are there connections between the work you are not getting to, and the development objectives you and your team have identified for themselves? Developing your team should always be one of your big rocks.  There might very well be a win-win if you can connect some of the work you’re not getting to with the development needs of one of your team.   Paying attention to developing your team is clearly a big rock, but the actual tasks you’re considering delegating are most likely gravel for you. That said, they could be a big rock or at least developmental for someone on your team. Win-win!

Finally, what are you doing that just doesn’t need doing?    Stop doing it, now, and don’t give it to anyone else!  That is a win-win for everyone!   (Even if it is one of the things that you really like to do, it helps to realize that it’s just not that important!)

Epilogue:

Reframe your time management dilemma into an opportunity to engage and develop your team by sharing the load and delegating important work that’s no longer strategic for you, and by ditching work that no one should do.

Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.  (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)

Great Reads and Views: 

Covey, S. (1989). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. New York, Simon and Schuster.

Kay, M. (2016). “A Valuable Lesson for a Happier Life.” from https://youtu.be/SqGRnlXplx0.

 

The 5 Most Important Skills to Drive Trust and Credibility

Screen Shot 2016-08-11 at 3.59.01 PMWhat are the five most critical skills to earning trust and credibility with your clients?

Find out how top performing consultants are answering this question! Respond to our survey and we’ll send you the results.

The  Survey has one multiple choice question and takes less than five minutes.  Thanks!

When I talk to consulting leaders, it’s not hard to quickly reach agreement that there are a set of communications and relationship skills which make a world of difference in how well their technologists, scientists, and subject matter experts align with and communicate effectively with the individuals and organizations they are serving.

The practical problem which follows is, which of those skills will have the greatest impact? Because it is difficult and unrealistic to develop capability on 20 or so parallel fronts, it’s helpful to get a sense for which of those skills and knowledge elements are the most critical to develop in the short term, and which can be deferred to later stages of development.

In this month’s letter, I’ll discuss the work that I’ve been doing with a couple of key partners, and invite you to participate in the research which will help us answer the prioritization question.

Partners International, Discovery Consulting and Ascendent Leadership are working together to better understand the critical competencies which enable a technologist, scientist, or subject matter expert to develop into the role of valued consultant or advisor.  We want to understand how successful consultants build trust and credibility with the people they serve.

As part of our work, we have isolated 20 competencies which we believe are core to this transformation from subject matter expert to consultant.  Here they are, grouped by a high level outline of categories.  Even though we placed each of them in one category for simplicity, many or most of them could be relevant in multiple categories.

Here is our take on the four key categories and 20 discrete competencies:

Emotional Intelligence Communications
Awareness of personal emotions Customer focus and presence
Reading others’ emotions Asking powerful questions
Understanding client relationship needs Active listening
Demonstrating confidence Delivering difficult messages
Defending beliefs without being aggressive Resolving conflict
Credibility Managing Change
Executive presence Aligning with the client’s vision
Business acumen – general Identifying, validating client requirements
Business acumen – specific to client firm or industry Identifying alternative strategies, choosing the best
Asking relevant questions Identifying, managing barriers
Telling relevant stories Describing a clear path to the client vision

We believe that all of these competencies are important and could be critical in any given situation.  That said, we want to understand how consulting leaders would prioritize this list of 20 competencies to best assist their technologists, scientists, and subject matter experts in developing the communications and relationship skills they need to become true consultants and advisors to their clients.

Want to participate?  Great!  We invite you to take a short (3-5 min) survey which asks you to rank order those 20 competencies into four levels of importance to you.  We also want to hear your input on any other competencies you see as critical that we did not include in our list. We will return the survey results to you if you provide your email address when taking the survey.

Click the link below to take the survey, and thanks!

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Reframing – Deliver Your Feedback with a Twist!

manhattan-with-a-twist_600There is a traditional Taoist story of an old farmer who owned a horse, which he used for transportation and for working his fields. His neighbors thought him quite wealthy because he owned a horse.

One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “Maybe”, the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed. “Maybe,” replied the old man.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses. He was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “Maybe,” answered the farmer.

The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “Maybe,” said the farmer.

At each turn of the story, the wise old farmer knew that whether the new event was good or bad depended entirely on a future context of what would happen next.

Imagine a situation where client brings you an issue or an opportunity. Through your feedback and questions, you help them pick it up, turn it over, look underneath it, look behind it, and help them develop a complete picture of the opportunity, and to gain a variety of perspectives on how best to approach it.

Great advisors do just that by assisting their clients in evaluating their existing context and envisioning new perspectives that could dramatically change how they might interpret and act on future events.

This act of helping clients conceive such a new context is called “reframing“. It literally means helping the client create a new frame of reference which will enable them to create a new set of possibilities for action. It is the ability to put a commonplace event in a new frame that is more useful, effective, or enjoyable.   Why is this so important?

Reframing can be the pivotal element in the creative process.

When an advisor incorporates reframing into a client discussion, the advisor is helping the client see their own experience and resources from a new perspective. That new language enables a new solution. That is vastly more valuable to them than being handed a solution based solely on the consultant’s experience. Because the new frame is a refinement or extension of the client’s earlier work and insight, they will be much more motivated to embrace it and implement it.

So, then, what do great advisors need to deliver a successful reframe? What might we hear to gauge our level of success?

We need the depth of experience, knowledge and insight to help them explore what different frames might exist and how the available options might be different under those new frames. “This consultant had a broad understanding of my industry, and our challenges. His questions and responses reflected that depth.”

We need self-awareness of our own frames, biases, perspectives, and favored approaches. With that clear, we need to check our biases at the door. We need the patience to engage with our client in a process of curiosity, dialogue and discovery, before we drive straight to our preferred frame.  “I did not feel this consultant was being honest with me. From the moment she walked in here, she was pushing for her solution.”

We need to be able to ask powerful questions that enable our client to see their existing frames and assess how well those frames are working for them. “She asks lots of really provocative, relevant questions.”

We need the active listening skills to reflect back what we see and we hear in a way that helps the client become aware of their own existing frames. “When he feeds back what he heard, I see my questions and ideas in a new light. His feedback always produces more thought.”

Epilogue: In his outstanding book, Clients for Life, Jagdish Sheth sums up the power of framing this way:

“Framing is the essence of synthesis. It organizes and explains complex phenomena by reducing them to a few simple dimensions. A good frame (or framework) highlights the most relevant aspects of the issue or problem shows how they interrelate and then connects to your overarching purpose or goal.”

Wouldn’t you like to give that gift to your clients?