To Have the Most Impact, Ask the Right Questions

is one of the most important competencies of leaders in the twenty-first century. How well a leader can is crucial to that leader’s effectiveness as well as his or her organization’s success.

Like all communication, we influence most effectively when we pay careful attention to how our influence is received. Many of you pointed this out in the comments on our blog post about the different influencing styles, noting that all styles of influence can be effective when we keep in mind what’s important to everyone involved. We agree. Paying attention to how your influence is received is important for several reasons.

For starters, the more attentive you are, the sooner you will realize the need to switch or tweak your influencing to keep the other open to your position. How quickly you do this is important as it increases your chances of gaining what you want, and as we discussed in our blog post on ineffective influence, it decreases the harm that ineffective influence can have on your relationships and the organization as a whole.

While both — getting what you want and doing no harm — are equally important, the latter may be harder to grasp. After all, if we get what we want, then we’ve influenced effectively, right? Not necessarily. When you repeatedly gain compliance when you really need commitment, over time you weaken your personal effectiveness and create a climate of distrust, which eventually diminishes the organization’s performance.

You are probably thinking, “I would never intentionally behave in a way that is damaging to my organization or myself.” The key word here is intention. Ineffective influence is usually a result of unintentional behavior. It’s human to become so focused on our desired outcome that we lose sight of what is happening in the moment.

Avoid this unintentional behavior by consciously practicing intentional influence. No matter what influencing style you use, a simple and effective way to influence intentionally is to ask .

Questions give you the chance to hear what the other person is thinking, giving you more opportunity to accurately determine his or her influencing style. By really listening to the person’s response, you will know whether you can move on to your next point, or if you need to back up and readdress something in a way that helps the other person see your perspective and brings him or her closer to your position. According to a study published in the Journal of Research in Personality, when people feel listened to by those trying to influence them, their liking of, commitment to, and trust in the influencer increases — all of which strengthen your influencing capability in the situation and overall.

It’s important to remember that there are different types of questions, and what kind will be most effective depends on the situation and what you are trying to elicit from the person.

1. Convergent questions: What, where, who, and when questions get a person to clarify the specifics of what he or she is thinking. Converging questions can be important when time is of the essence or you are dealing with someone who is theoretical.

2. Divergent or expansive questions: Why and what if questions ask a person to expand on what he or she is thinking. Divergent questions can be important when you need someone to see the larger context of a position.

3. Integrating questions: If…then what questions demonstrate an attempt to find common ground between opposing positions. This builds trust and encourages compromise, which is important in situations where the stakes are high for both sides.

Asking the right questions enables you to see whether you can continue to “push” your opinion to a receptive person or if you need to “pull” the person back into the conversation before you lose his or her attention. The different styles of influence can be grouped into push (rationalizing and asserting), pull (bridging and inspiring), and neutral (negotiating) styles, so asking questions helps you determine what style might be most effective at this point. Plus, asking questions keeps people engaged, which is paramount when you are trying to influence someone’s thinking or behavior.

Perhaps most importantly, asking questions frames the entire conversation as an inquiry in which both sides are coming together to uncover the best solution. Not only are you communicating that you haven’t come with an immovable agenda, you are demonstrating that you care about and are open to the other person’s perspective, creating trust. This is intentional influence at its most effective. Not just a positive by product of intentional influence, a culture of trust is a trademark of high performing teams and organizations, and the benchmark of great leadership.


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