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Marketing Viewpoint by Ruth Winett

How To Ask Questions that Will
Help You Do Your Job

Discovery is at the heart of most professional interactions whether you are a business person, teacher, accountant, psychologist, or politician. Business people seek answers to questions, such as, "Will anyone buy our new product?" "Can the supplier meet our production schedule?" or "Will this candidate fit in?"

Discovery through questioning requires that you first establish trust. Show that you want to help your customers and colleagues, that you want to do business with a supplier, or that you prefer qualifying to disqualifying a new hire.

Then, to find out what the other person is really thinking, ask open-ended questions. Zoe Chance, ( author of Influence Is Your Super Power and professor at Yale School of Management, says that the most impactful question to ask is a variation of Zoe Chance's question, "What would it take…?"

Asking Dr. Chance's question would have been effective in the following situation: The CEO of a local tech company mandated that his staff increase sales by 15% that year. It did not happen. Moreover, the staff resented the unrealistic demand. Had the CEO asked, "What would it take to increase sales by 15% this year?" the outcome might have been different. The managers might have developed a strategy that could achieve the goal. Or, the managers might have convinced the CEO that the 15% goal would require several years because of insufficient resources. Finally, the managers might have developed a new, more achievable, objective and plan and presented it to the CEO.

One of the advantages of asking an open-ended question, such as "What would it take…?" is that it is respectful and non-judgmental. It gives people agency and elicits new ideas. And, it asks people something rather than tells them something. Furthermore, it suggests possibilities, not requirements. It also gives you a window into the respondents’ thought processes and values. It does not lock people into an answer that you have formulated.

Here are some other situations in which you could use Zoe Chance's leading question:

  • What would it take to successfully introduce online product support?
  • What would it take to sell our lithium batteries in Dubai?
  • What would it take to open up a sales office in Des Moines?
  • What would it take to recruit a more diversified workforce?
  • What would it take to rebrand the company/the product?

Respondents to the above questions would provide a realistic assessment of measures necessary to achieve the objective implied in the question, including risks and benefits. Ask yes/no or closed questions to establish matters of fact, such as "Have you ever shipped products to Asia?" To probe further, ask several carefully crafted open-ended questions. Then, listen carefully to the responses.

Actionable Business Insights

Copyright © 4/22 Ruth Winett. All rights reserved.

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