To Lead or Persuade, Master the Art and Science of Asking Effective Questions

When you are in selling situations, do people from time to time ask you to repeat what you’ve just asked them? If the answer is yes, chances are you are using too many words. You are causing people to think too hard about your question, when you’d rather have them thinking about their answer.

I have noticed this pattern not just with salespeople talking with prospects and clients, but also among executives leading their teams. I decided it was worth a closer look.

I did some research into how the human brain processes questions. What I learned is that our brains process short questions much more effectively than long ones. Specifically, a listener can more easily deduce the meaning of a question of ten words or fewer than a question of eleven words or more. What happens is this: when the question is too long, listeners must devote more of their cognitive resources to focusing on the question.

Next time someone asks you to repeat a question, count the number of words you just used. Chances are it is more than ten.

Even if you aren’t asked to repeat your lengthy questions, you have a problem. You have still required the listener to focus on your question, not on delivering an answer. On the other hand, when you use questions of ten words or fewer, listeners are literally able to digest it so quickly, to comprehend it so thoroughly, that they can focus their cognitive capacity solely on framing their answer.

The science makes clear the importance of becoming highly effective in phrasing our questions. If you are an executive or a manager, or anyone in a position to move others, you want the people you influence to be able to think about their answer, not get stuck thinking about your question.

If you sell something, you want your prospects giving you all the important juicy details you need, in order to deliver a high level of service. You do NOT want them struggling with “what was the question?”

So, how do you change your behavior? Like many behavior modification goals, start with observing the behavior you’d like to change. Start counting the words you use to ask questions. Each time you find yourself using more than ten words, write the long question down. When you have a moment, try rewriting those questions. First, strive to use fewer words. Then, look for ways to make those few words more provocative. In a short question, every word must work its hardest. If you get stuck on this task, bounce your questions off your colleagues.

Let me give you an example. For some time, I have been playing a little game I call, “how little can I say?” I discovered this strategy and when I noticed I was hearing “please repeat the question” a little too often. When asking customers what they needed, I would say things like, “Mrs. Customer, I am sure you want things to be better, so what specifically do you need from me to create the outcomes and make your situation better at your company?” You don’t need to literally count that sentence to realize there were many more than ten words. I call that the “verbal vomit,” by the way. Those of us who like words are very good at figuratively vomiting words and phrases all over people. I know that image is gross—that’s how I know you’ll remember it. When you verbally vomit you cause people to have to clean the question off themselves before they can begin to start thinking about their answer.

Playing my game of “how little can I say,”  I finally shortened that from “Mrs. Customer [verbal vomit]” to, “Mrs. Customer, what do you need?”

It’s just that simple. “What do you need?” Then stop talking. Open your ears. Be a sponge. Now let’s finesse the formula. Make the next thing you’ll say a variation on those four simple words. Try, “What else do you need?” Followed by, “What else? What else? What else?”

I work frequently with salespeople—some who take orders, some who garner new business, and some who are growing accounts. They have all told me that the “What do you need? What else?” strategy gets them somewhere around 60 to 80 percent of the information they need to respond with a consultative sales approach. Why wouldn’t it? Customers digest the questions so quickly, they can answer more thoroughly. “What else?” just keeps the ball rolling.

You can phrase the question according to your own style, of course. You can say, “Sure, I understand that, and what else do you need Mr. Customer?” or, “Oh, that’s interesting. Thanks for that detail. What else? What else? What else?”

To further prepare, be sure to have a provocative list of follow-up questions ready. Give thought to what you want to know—and how few words you can use to ask. Remember that ten words or less is the goal.

I invite you play this game. Don’t vomit information and questions and details all over people. Keep it short and simple. Find out what they need, what is important, and the “why” behind each answer.

The art of asking effective questions is all about getting out of the way of the listener. At its core, it is just prompting others for the next thing they need to say. Questions of ten words or fewer are the key.

If you master this technique, I can promise you people will think you are brilliant—not because of what you say, but what you allow them to say.

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