Asking persuasive questions is an art which few of us spend much time thinking about. Though we use questions liberally, they tend to be habitual and rather routine; we have a favoured and rather limited range of questions which we use and re-use.
When our questions don’t work (they don’t get the desired result), if we think about it at all, we often assume that the failure is in the responder. It rarely occurs to us to go back to basics and reconstruct our approach.
When a conversation fails, rather than inwardly blaming the other person or accusing them of unwillingness to comply, or even resistance, consider using more engaging and persuasive questions and see what happens.
This is not an interrogation
Well-formed and persuasive questions are those which open up conversation. They draw the participants together. It is a subtle process of engagement, rather than a blunt and divisive adversarial campaign of interrogation.
To develop your questioning skills, the starting point should be your own mindset or attitude. It won’t work if conversations are hurried, too focused on outcome, or if you have a particular agenda.
Impossible right? We all have an agenda, otherwise why ask questions? But if you want to open up conversation it is important to push the agenda to one side for a moment, in order to avoid sounding pushy and putting the other person in a position where they begin to feel defensive. This is often the default position anyway, so it is the first hurdle to be negotiated.
So, even though you have a position – in that you’ll be working towards the outcome you want – it should not be too present in your mind. I call this ‘holding your position lightly’; you know the general direction you want to head in, but first and foremost you focus on creating a sustainable and collaborative relationship.
It helps to keep in mind that the driving energies should be curiosity and empathy, rather than a furious rush to have your own preferences or beliefs confirmed. Even though your conversation might have a job to do – in the context of work, for example, or an enquiry about a situation that needs correcting – holding your position lightly is generally a good starting point. It demonstrates interest, increases rapport, and it allows the conversation to flower in a way will increase mutual understanding and respect.
Good conversationalists know that interest is a prerequisite for the art. Even where the context of a discussion is a professional one, the same basic rules of engagement apply; interest, empathy and rapport should preceed enquiry, instruction or whatever else the conversation is required to do.
Persuasive questions show interest and engender trust. This won’t happen if the person you are talking to feels unsafe, suspects your motives, or assumes that your questions are a thinly veiled attempt to get your own way. They’ll just feel manipulated or coerced if your language is clumsy.
Once you have mastered your attitiude and your own needs, it will only take you a few years to become proficient at this (30 years in my case, and counting). By now, if you are still reading, you might be thinking “Yes, but how…”.
Good question! You’ve started.