How to Use Questions to Influence, Negotiate, Pitch & Coach
Updated: Mar 1, 2021
Today I will continue with another tactic that you can use immediately and it will improve any communication. And the topic is QUESTIONS.
Now, this is a big topic. Because we could talk about questions for hours – there are thousands of questions we can ask and all of them will be useful in certain situations. But I want to make it simple for you so that you can start using this strategy immediately. So let’s start.
So why are questions so important? They will help you achieve your goals or create the impact you desire in any situation. Just think about it for a moment. With questions you can find out the intentions of your partner, you can coach, you can provide feedback, you can brainstorm, you can sell. So it’s surprising that we don’t use questions enough. The reason I think this is happening is that to be able to ask questions, you need to listen. Actively listen, and you need to be genuinely curious. You need to be curious about your communication partner. So you need to get out of your own head and listen to what's going on for them.
All right so when we talk about questions, we need to differentiate between open questions and closed questions.
Closed questions can be answered by yes or no. Now, the advantage of these questions is that they get to the point. Usually, the answer is quick and clear – yes or no. So they have their place.
Now, if you want to be an excellent and charming communicator, open questions will be much more valuable to you. Because they encourage creative and useful responses. And with these questions, you find root causes of things.
So this is the first win for your communication. When you speak try to catch yourself when you want to ask a closed question and try to replace it with an open question. You might be surprised by the results this will get you. Try it.
So what are open questions?
Open questions cannot be answered by yes or no. These are questions that begin with who, what, when, where, how, and why.
You definitely want to use open questions when you’re negotiating, selling, pitching. Now, why are these questions so valuable in these situations? Because to be successful, you need to uncover, what your partner's views are. What do they want, what’s important to them? What’s really on their mind? Now, once you discover that, you can move your conversation forward toward ideas and solutions. And remember, if you’re not sure what to say, ask a question. You can't go wrong with a question that’s coming from a genuine place of curiosity and interest. It’s always better to ask more than less.
Now, there are thousands of great questions, and today, I will teach you some of my favorite ones and most universal ones, my charming communicators.
So first let’s talk about questions to use when we negotiate, pitch, influence, make a request.
How does that sound?
This question is my favorite because you can use it really in any situation, it’s pretty flexible. And the way it comes across is like you’re curious, and you don’t sound pushy. It comes across as very friendly. How does that sound?
What are your thoughts on that?
These 2 questions, How does that sound and What are your thoughts on that are awesome if you presented an idea, you made a suggestion and now you need to find out your partner's standpoint. You might be tempted to formulate a yes or no question to get a quick answer, but that’s never a good idea when influencing, because what if they say no? The conversation will be over. On the other hand, if you ask: what are your thoughts? or how does that sound? the conversation will expand, it will not end. And you can work with that. You can say: "Oh if that’s your concern, what if we do… this or that…" and you can offer options and solutions. You’re opening to the negotiation.
Other useful questions, after you made your proposal can be: How would that work? / How could we make that work?
These questions are looking for solutions. So let’s say you make a proposal, and you ask "How could we make that work?" That’s really smart because you show your willingness to collaborate on the execution.
If you see that someone doesn’t fully support an idea you proposed, a great question to ask is:
What's your biggest concern here?
Now, we will have a future episode about negotiating so we will get more into detail for these situations. For now, remember, and use these questions:
How does that sound?
What are your thoughts on that?
You will be charming with your communication I promise you that.
All right, these are my favorite questions to ask when you make a request. Now let’s have a look at some questions to use if you want to coach someone. We’re talking about coaching in general, you don’t have to be a coach to use coaching strategies. So you’re a manager, a friend, basically, someone who wants to help. What are the most useful questions for coaching?
Now here’s the thing. When someone comes to us and they present us their challenge and they ask for help, we are tempted to offer advice. That’s the first thing we all want to do. But that’s rarely helpful. And this is a real thing. Actually, the author Michael Bungay Stanier calls this the advice trap. Don’t fall for it. Michael offers a set of universally applicable questions to ask instead of giving advice.
So now, I’d like to share them with you. Even if you’re not a coach, using them will help you in any situation.
So what Michael calls a kickstart question, or an opener is:
What’s on your mind?
No wonder, this is a terrific opener. Why? Because your partner will be prompted to open. This question doesn’t give you any limits. What’s on your mind? What are your thoughts? These are awesome openers.
The following question is:
And what else?
Now, this is great because usually with the first question, people will start sharing something but rarely will they say everything. And when you ask what else? they will go deeper and they will start looking at their situation from other perspectives. So what this question does is it requires your partner to make it clear for themselves. What else is on their mind?
Now, so often what happens after this question, and I've seen so many times, is that people start finding solutions themselves because you give them the opportunity to expand on their own ideas. So remember: What else?
The next question is
What's the real challenge here for you?
OK, so now, your partner shared a number of thoughts, ideas, or challenges. Now it's time to focus our conversation on just one of them. We need to start with the real challenge. So this question will uncover that.
The next question is:
What do you want?
This question helps us uncover what is their goal. What are we working towards?
And then, Michael suggests asking
How can I help?
Here we learn what we can do. And you might be surprised what they will tell you. Maybe they will ask you for advice but maybe not.
So remember these universal coaching questions:
What’s on your mind?
And what else?
What’s the real challenge here for you?
What do you want?
How can I help?
Now, I want to offer you a few more universally applicable questions:
What does XY mean to you?
What kind of solution can you think of?
Another type of question I want you to remember, charming communicator, and use, is:
What if questions are amazing when you want to offer a suggestion. They help you and the other person move toward agreement. For example, you proposed to your business partner to open a new product line. But they are not fully convinced. So you would start by asking open questions, like:
What’s your concern?
They would say for example: "We have 5 product lines already, I don’t think the market is ready for a new one". You would say: "All right, what if we test it on a sample market and then see?"
So what if is an excellent way to move toward solutions and it sounds very friendly and like you’re open to the dialogue. So your partner will feel comfortable agreeing to it.
Another framework I wanna offer here is:
If you..., then I...
This is an excellent question for creating win-win outcomes. So let’s say you offer a product to someone, let’s say you offer a training course to a company, and they ask you if you can deliver an extra hour of the training. You could say: "Yes, and if you write a review for my website, then, I would be happy to offer an hour on top of the regular training hours".
So here you see how you were able to create a win-win outcome, making an offer using if you, then I.
It’s important that when you use these open questions, that you don't rush it. The process needs to be slow and relational, rather than quick and transactional.
Also, allow for silence. The biggest mistake you can make when asking open-ended questions is to not allow for silence or interrupt. Give them time.
Now, another thing:
We said that open-ended questions start with who, what, when, where, how, and why. Now, are all of these equally effective?
This might surprise you. In my experience, the most effective questions start with WHAT and then HOW. I always try to formulate a WHAT question and I teach this strategy as well.
Now we all know Simon Sinek’s book Start with why. And Why is such a fantastic word and we should be asking ourselves all the time WHY are we doing what we are doing. However, for your communication with others, use WHAT as the preferred question starter. The reason is that WHAT sounds like you’re genuinely curious. Why might be a little too direct.
Just compare this:
Let’s say your marketing manager tells you, that they decided to hire a new marketing agency. And you ask: "Why did you do that?"
Now, depending on your tone, they might interpret it as if you’re questioning their decision.
Compare it to this: "What were the reasons you decided to hire this agency?"
Now, this doesn’t sound like you’re questioning, you’re just curious to hear the reasons.
Or, you could also start with how and ask something like: "How will this help us?"
So I encourage you whenever you want to make a proposal, offer advice, provide feedback, make a pitch, make a request - stop, and start with WHAT. The rest of the question, of the sentence, will follow very quickly. There’s always a way to formulate your question using WHAT at the beginning. And you might need to be a little more creative, which is awesome!
I promise you, you will be shocked and surprised by the reaction of your audience. Once you start using WHAT questions, your communication will improve dramatically and the effect will be obvious. Suddenly your audience will be open to requests that they would not agree with in the past, and they will start opening to you.
Now we’re talking about questions, I need to mention one more thing. Questions are a crucial part of something we call active listening.
Remember, in communication, we have a sender - someone who sends the message, and a receiver - the person who receives the message, and in between is the message. But what the sender means usually is something different from what the receiver understands. There might be a big or small gap in between. There are millions of examples of how misunderstandings and miscommunications can cause so many challenges. Some might be minor and some bigger, however, they can always be prevented if we check for understanding. So this goes both ways. Both the sender and the receiver can check for understanding using questions.
So as a message receiver you might want to check for understanding using something like: What I will do is that... (and you describe what you’re gonna do). What I understand is that… What I’m hearing you say... and you will see their reaction. Is it what they meant? And they might say – no, that’s not what I meant at all. And you will prevent so much hustle down the road.
Or if you’re the message sender you can ask them: What steps are you gonna take? How are you going to go about it? And again, use open questions here, and let them sum up their understanding with their words. Because if you ask Is it clear? Well, it might be clear to them, but their understanding might be completely different from yours. So always check for understanding using open questions, ideally starting with What or How.
Questions are such a huge topic and I want to encourage you to use them, whenever you can, even if you can't, try it. Use open questions starting with WHAT or HOW.
It will change everything, I promise you. I’m looking forward to hearing about your experiences so let me know how it goes.
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