Join John Ullmen for an in-depth discussion in this video Using five questions to increase understanding, part of Communication Foundations (2013).
- I coached a senior leader named Phil, who was great at connecting with all types of people. I asked him how he does it. He credits a turning point years back, when his manager said Phil was trying too hard to make his mark in meetings, and it was turning people off. They saw him as a self-serving aggressor who was trying to look better than them. Phil said the lesson he learned, that changed his career, is the key to connecting with people, is not so show off, but show interest. It starts with questions. People like Phil, who are great at connecting with others, ask great questions.
Sometimes it can get confusing to know what to ask. Let's cover five types of questions you can ask whenever you want to build stronger connection with others. The five connection questions trace a logical sequence, from understanding a person's situation, through what's driving key choices, to where they really want to be and how they can get there, and how you can help. Number one, description questions. These explore what happened. You show genuine interest with questions about the situation your listener was in, along with how events unfolded.
It's easy. Start with a courteous check-in about something that matters to them. How did the meeting go where you gave the project update? As they respond, picture in your mind's eye their situation and the sequence of events. To fill in the blanks, ask for relevant details about who did what, where, when, and how. Now, don't go mechanically through that list. Just try to see it like you were there. You'll naturally ask things like, "Who was there? "What did she say? "How did he respond? "What did you do at that point?" You're already showing your listener that what happened to them matters to you.
You're also learning things to help you understand even more and add value. That brings us to number two, cause questions. These explore, why did things happen? Cause questions build directly on your description questions and enable you to show up as their ally to understand why things went the way they did. Going back to that project meeting update example, "Why do you think she asked that question?" "Why do you think he waited until then to speak up?" "I wonder why he was so interested in that data?" You're going deeper with them now into causes and motives, which can help them make smarter choices going forward.
That takes us to number three, best case questions. These explore, what do you want to happen? Here, you invite listeners to lay out their best case scenarios. What does success look like for them? If things go as well as possible, what would that mean for them? Best case questions are terrific. These are my favorite. You're fundamentally helping your listeners clarify their own positive preferred future, and you're showing up as a thought partner interested in their success on their terms. These are easy to ask for whatever is coming up for your listeners.
"In your next project update meeting, "what's the best-case scenario for you? "What do you most want to accomplish?" "What's the most important thing you want them to know?" Be upbeat when you ask, and reassuring when they respond. Help them gain confidence and motivation from clarifying what they want. Number four, possibility questions. These explore, what if something changes? These build directly on the best case questions. They help your listeners make progress toward their best case scenarios by helping them to consider opportunities and risks.
As your listeners work toward their ideal outcomes, what can change? And, what can they do to prepare? For example, "In the next project update meeting, "what if that senior leader asks you to speed up the schedule? "What's your best way to respond?" Keep a positive, helpful tone, and be ready to ask question number five, which naturally comes next. These are contribution questions. They explore, how can I be helpful? Simply look for opportunities to offer assistance in whatever way is appropriate.
"Is there something I can do to help? "How can I be most supportive?" That's the sequence. Let's put it into action. For this coming week, practice using the five connection questions with trusted friends or colleagues and get used to using them. The next week after that, in real situations, not just practice, ask each of the five connection questions at least once. Don't force it. You don't have to ask all five at one time to one person. Opportunities will come up for all of them in the course of normal work.
They get easier each time. And, like Phil from our opening example, you'll see how you can draw people toward you by going toward them by thought partnering about what matters most to them. Don't forget that last question, "Is there anything I can do to be helpful to you?" Even if they just say, "No, thank you," merely by asking, you stand out as someone willing to take an interest in their success and do something about it. Those are the kind of people who really impress us, and not by trying to be impressive.
As Phil likes to say, these days, when people ask him for advice, don't try to be interesting to people, be interested.
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- Managing the intent-impact gap
- Designing the content of your message
- Improving vocal delivery
- Adjusting your body language
- Being politically savvy
- Listening to what's said, what's unsaid, and how it's said
- Increasing empathy and trust
- Overcoming anxiety<br><br>
- The PMI Registered Education Provider logo is a registered mark of the Project Management Institute, Inc.