Quint's Column: How and why to ask great questions

Quint Studer

In last week’s column, we talked about why it’s better to be interested than interesting. It’s a natural impulse to try to make yourself seem interesting to impress others, but there’s one big problem: It doesn’t work. Only when we learn how to show interest in other people can we create strong, authentic, trust-based relationships with them. And being able to spark and nurture these kinds of relationships is a major key to success in business and in all other areas of life.

 

In a nutshell, that’s the why. This week I’d like to really dig into the how. What does an interested person look like in action and how can you become one?

 

Let’s start with the trait that underlies the state of being interested. Curiosity. Curiosity is simply the strong desire to know more about something. This trait is an important part of emotional intelligence. It’s what creates the quest for the ongoing learning that keeps us viable as businesspeople—to stay relevant and innovative, we must never stop pursuing new knowledge and better ways to do things.

 

Curiosity also keeps us vital, youthful (no matter what the date on our birth certificate is), and happier. It keeps us growing and trying new things. If you think about the most interesting people you know, you’ll probably find they are also the most curious people you know.

 

So the first step toward being interested is to develop and nurture your curiosity in general. Read as much as you can. Spend a lot of time in bookstores, libraries, internet cafés, or wherever you like to do your reading. Visit new places; you don’t have to spend a lot of money on travel to faraway lands because there are interesting places to visit within a few miles of your home. If a subject grabs your interest, dig deeper.

 

The second step, and the one I want to focus most on today, is learning to ask great questions. This is an incredibly valuable skill. Great questions can help us engage others in a way that reveals what really matters most to them (I call this their what), form a genuine connection, and build trust. Questions help us clarify our thinking and often lead to unexpected solutions. They also show vulnerability (because we’re deferring to another person and admitting we don’t know something) and take the pressure off of us to be the one who knows all the answers.

 

Yet for most people, asking questions doesn’t always come naturally, especially if you’re a super-extrovert or if you’ve been trained to “convince” and “persuade” by talking. That’s why I want to share a few tools and tactics to help you get started. Once you try out this new way of approaching relationships, you’ll find being interested gets easier and easier.

 

Practice by trying out the 36 Questions app. This app includes some great conversation starters. We actually used it recently at EntreCon as a way to get to know a total stranger, and it turned out to be a lot of fun and very effective. The 36 Questions app is based on a scientific study by psychologist Dr. Arthur Aron and is designed to help people get to know each other. You can pick and choose the questions you like.

 

Here are a few of the 36 questions:

Would you like to be famous? In what way?

For what in your life do you feel most grateful?

If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?

What would constitute a “perfect” day for you?

Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?

 

Discover great questions by reading up on the subject. There are quite a few books and online articles out there on asking great questions. One of my favorites is Power Questions: Build Relationships, Win New Business, and Influence Others by Andrew Sobel and Jerold Panas. This book lists 337 questions that help with all kinds of scenarios like winning new business, building relationships, coaching and mentoring others, engaging leaders and employees, etc.

 

One of Sobel and Panas’s questions I find really valuable when you’re getting to know someone is: “How did you get your start?” The authors say this is a question even the most famous or powerful person cannot resist. Ask it and you will learn a lot about the person. Here are a few more of their power questions:

What has been the happiest day of your life?

Why do customers stay with you? Why do they leave?

What would you like to be remembered for?

If you hadn’t gone into (business, teaching, medicine, etc.), what do you think you would have done instead?

How can I be of the greatest help to you in our relationship?

 

Do your homework so you can ask smart questions. If you are going to an event (perhaps a conference or trade show) where you know you’re going to meet new people or network for your company, study up on the field. Read through a few industry trades so you’ll know what issues are top of mind. The idea is not for you to pretend to be an expert, but to demonstrate a healthy interest in relevant issues. That way you can make the people you talk to the star.

 

Make questions a regular part of your company’s culture. One idea is to implement leader rounding. Basically, put a system in place to regularly meet with each direct report and ask some specific questions. I like to start with a personal question like, “Where is your family going on vacation this summer?” or, “How is your son liking college?” Then I move on to asking work-related questions: “What’s going well?” “Who has been really helpful to you lately?” “Is anything keeping you from doing your best work?” “How might I be a better leader?” All of this helps you create a deep connection with employees and really get to know them.

 

Once you get used to asking questions on a regular basis, you’ll find it quickly gets easier. It doesn’t matter whether you’re an outgoing people-person or a quiet introvert. (In fact, being prepared with a few thoughtful “interview questions” is a great way to overcome one’s inhibitions and break the ice.) But even better, you’ll find you want to ask questions. You’ll discover that people truly are endlessly fascinating. Everyone has a story, and when you learn to draw them out, you will get to hear them.

 

Next week we’ll discuss listening, which is the other part of the equation. When you combine the two—great questions and great listening techniques—you’ll have the raw materials for deeply productive conversations. These can lead to some pretty profound insights and sometimes even creative breakthroughs and mindshifts. It is just a better way to relate to others—better for you, better for them, and better for everyone whose well-being depends on the relationship you’re building together.

  

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