How can I use questions to gain impact?

by Sam on May 6, 2009

Analysis: The subtitle of my book, “What to Ask When You Don’t Know What to Say” is “555 Powerful Questions to Use for Getting Your Way at Work.” Sixteen years after its publication I remain committed to the idea that questions are more commanding than statements. I say this for three reasons. First, they’re different; when you ask a question of someone expecting a statement, you catch them off guard. Second, you’re not always in a position of sufficient authority to make a statement, but anyone can ask an authoritative question. Finally, questions are “magic.” They turn confusion into clarity, resistance into receptivity, conflict into consensus, and silence into speech.

Answer: Questions put you in charge of conversations.

1. They please hearers. The right question shows consideration for and interest in the views of others. How would you do that if you were me?

2. They focus thought. Just as a lens condenses sunlight on a small spot, a question pinpoints thinking. If you could flip a switch and change one thing about your current situation, what would that change be?

3. They harmonize conflicting views. This is one of the essential steps to take in conflict resolution. How do you see my needs being similar and dissimilar to yours?

4. They de-escalate anger and hostility. When others are agitated, your goal is to calm them. No statement will do this; only a question followed by non-judgmental listening. How can I make it right?

5. They build friendships. One of the best ways to nurture or even heal a relationship is to be a dedicated listener. How did my action affect you?

6. They inject accountability. Accusations are rarely a good way to hold people responsible. Queries most often do a better job. What measurable expectations should I have for the outcomes of your effort?

7. They display your commitment and interest. Do this by asking “I care” questions. What’s the most important thing I need to know in order to serve you well?

8. They promote self-examination. Any time you encourage others to look inside of themselves for answers you perform a service to them. If you were working in your ideal job right now, what would you be doing?

9. They convert wants into needs. Most requests from bosses, customers, suppliers, colleagues, direct reports, children, spouses, siblings, parents, or friends are expressions of wants, even though they may be stated as “I need…” Turn those wants into needs and your responses will be more satisfying to the requestor. What is it that you’ll achieve by having it done that way?

10. They remove the sting from criticism. There is certainly nothing wrong with a statement of well-delivered, constructive criticism. (“I discovered this morning that the front door was left unlocked all night.”) But asking a question often assures that the recipient will not feel attacked, and it may even help you discover an acceptable explanation for your grievance. Is there a reason why the front door would have been left unlocked all night?

There is a certain three-fold art to asking questions. First, if you have been a good listener all along, your questions will fit into in the context of the situation and will therefore make good sense to the hearer. (Speaking of listening, be sure to do that when your question is answered!) Second, a supportive and genuinely inquisitive tone in your asking voice will prevent defensiveness. Third, certain questions need to have their sharp edges smoothed before the asking. Soften otherwise confrontive questions with: “May I ask…?” or “There’s something I’ve been wondering about.”

Next Week: I’ll reveal my all-time favorite questions as well as when they have the maximum impact. You’ll love them!


Asking the proper questions is the central action of transformation. Questions are the key that causes the secret doors of the psyche to swing open.

~ Clarissa Pinkola Estes

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.

5/13: What are the most influential questions I can ask?
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?

Action (yours)

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

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