As a professional coach serving highly experienced change practitioners, one of the most frequent challenges I hear is, “How do I become more than a hired hand so that my clients can benefit from the depth of my experience?” I know from my early days as a change management consultant that my ego found some solace when a client would say, “We should have listened to you.” You’ve probably been there; after a while it wears thin.
How do you build those relationships so that clients will listen to you? In this Inc. article, Thomas Koulopoulos provides an answer: Questions.
Change Management Review offered guidance on the use of questions in our recently released paper, The Change Practitioner as Coach. Koulopoulos brings a different perspective. He uses as his primary reference a study first reported in Harvard Business Review. He writes, “If you think about the sorts of conversations you have with people who fall into (your) inner circle of advisers, confidants, and perhaps even soulmates, you’ll discover one thing stands out in how you communicate: the role of questions.”
There are several key learnings in this article that I want to highlight here. First, there are “four types of questions: introductory questions (‘How are you?’), mirror questions (‘I’m fine. How are you?’), full-switch questions (ones that change the topic entirely), and follow-up questions (ones that solicit more information).” The most important of these are the follow-up questions; they demonstrate interest in the other party. On the other hand, if you question from a script—which many change practitioners do in early meetings with organizational leaders—it can come across as only caring about the information, and not the person. That does not lay the foundation for a strong and trusting relationship.
The second important lesson is knowing when to keep questions open-ended. The author rightly points out that “what we often ignore is the risk of closed-ended questions that introduce bias and a sense of manipulation.” Think about the questions you are preparing to ask. They may sound fine to you, but will they sound biased to the recipient?
Pay attention to the sequence of your questions. If all you are interested in is collecting information, start with the most challenging question first. Everything after that will feel less invasive. However, if you are truly wanting to build that deeper trusting relationship, the research says to start with the less challenging questions, and work your way up.
It’s no surprise that tone is important; pay attention to it. “The findings here is exactly what you’d expect, ‘People are more forthcoming when you ask questions in a casual way, rather than in a buttoned-up, official tone.’ But what’s especially interesting is that this applies across the board to all sorts of communication, even online questions and surveys.”
Be alert to group dynamics when you are engaged with several people. It only takes a few people to set the tone of openness, or closedness. Be intentional regarding those who you call on first.
Finally, “The research also delves into what makes answers to questions meaningful and productive in furthering a sense of equity, bonding, and sharing. The bottom line seems to be that you need to strive for balanced transparency and sharing. An imbalance, one way or the other, can tilt the conversation and create discomfort or skepticism as to the motives of the questioner.”
Using questions wisely can help you gain the trust and the relationship that you are looking for with your clients.