What are the most influential questions I can ask?

by Sam on May 13, 2009

Analysis: Everyone asks questions, but few take the time to assess how effective their queries have been at achieving the goals they had in asking them. Writing the book “What to Ask When You Don’t Know What to Say” in 1993 sensitized me to the impact my questions were having. Since that time, I have catalogued the most influential questions that I’ve learned one person can ask another.

Answer: This brief has really been fun to write. It’s always pleasurable to uncover little known nuggets of success, and the questions below fit that category. They are provided for your enjoyment, and even more for your use. Memorize two or three today that you’ll apply at the right moment. Then, in a few weeks come back to the list for two or three more.

1.   What makes you say that? Whenever people condemn you, challenge you, or otherwise cause you discomfort with a statement, this rejoinder immediately switches the focus back onto them. If it’s a question that discombobulates you, try What makes you ask that?

2.   What’s one thing we could do to lose your business? This is, bar none, the most powerful question for assessing the health of the relationship you have with an ongoing customer. Have you the courage to ask it?

3.   What’ll it take to keep this from happening again? Here’s a great line to conclude any criticism you give aimed at improved behavior. It can alternatively serve as the preface to the criticism, which would then begin after the recipient responds with, “What are you talking about?”

4.   What is it that I said that you disagree with? When you hear, “I disagree with you!” the instinctive response is the confrontational “Why do you disagree?” The dispassionate and data seeking “What…?” is a much better way to go. It will often reveal that what appears to be disagreement is nothing more than misunderstanding.

5.   What have you done so far? Any leader, or parent, knows that people too often raise problems for you to solve, when they should have first given thought to actions they could have taken before reporting the problem.

6.   What can I do to earn your trust? Ask this when someone acts in a way that shows little faith in you–for example, a boss who micromanages one of your responsibilities. The likely response, “What do you mean?” then enables you to give the feedback you may not have otherwise felt free to provide.

7.   What do you need from me in order to achieve the success I expect from you? You win the respect and loyalty of people responsible to you when you give them the opportunity to state the expectations they have of your leadership.

8.   What is the one greatest problem you’re having with your current supplier? This question for sales people making a cold call, or even a warm one, digs for pain that you can ease with your solution. By the end of the discussion, the prospect will often close the deal with, “So, when can you start?”

9.   May I ask for your help with something? The response will frequently be “Sure.” Your intent was to open the person to a request from you for changed behavior, which you just did.

10. Are you saying that…? Before you respond to lengthy statements that others make, check to be certain you understand their intent.

11. Is that fair? My friend John Rosso of the Sandler Sales Institute taught me this one. It’s a technique for getting little agreements to your assertions along the way in a conversation so as to strengthen your ability to close the deal at the end. You might also use, Does that make sense?

12. Do you mind if I ask you something? When you have a challenging request to make, this will take the edge off and make the hearer more receptive to it.

13. What one thing can I do to add greater value? Too few bosses are forthcoming with sufficient performance feedback. This probe is a certain way to learn how to do better in that boss’s eyes. Never ask, “How am I doing?” You’ll rarely hear anything you can act on.

14. Who has been the most influential person in your life? This is one of best ways to get to know new acquaintances quickly, especially after they explain their choice.

15. Can we agree to replace the “win-lose” elements in our relationship with “win-win?” What a great way to initiate the healing of a relationship!

16. What else? When you want to hear more from a person who has stopped talking, pull out this sure-fire probe.

17. Is this the best use of my time right now? Ask this of yourself once in the morning, once in the afternoon, and once in the evening.

18. Will you forgive me? The best for last. Each of us has hurt someone. This is a most helpful expression of sorrow that launches the journey to a warmer relationship.

NB: This is the second in a series of briefs on questions. See the archives of May 6, 2009 for the kickoff.


If you are not moving closer to what you want in sales (or in life), you probably aren’t doing enough asking.

~Jack Canfield

Approaching: Is there a “coming attraction” on this list that you can’t wait for? Shoot me an email and I’ll send you a sneak preview.

5/20: How can I reduce my stress?
5/27: How can I reduce my stress? (Part II)
6/3: Do I inspire ethical behavior in others?
6/10: Do I operate from a clear code of ethics?
6/17: Why do people fight?
6/24: How can I keep fights from breaking out?
7/1: What is the best way to fight?
7/8: When (and how) should I step in to break it up a fight?

Action (yours)

Do you have an Ask for Sam about leadership, team building or communications? Email that question to him at sam@asksamdeep.com. He will respond to you either by email or telephone. Please include your telephone number with your Ask.

{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment

You can use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>