All Articles Leadership Careers Andrew Sobel, on the power of asking questions

Andrew Sobel, on the power of asking questions

5 min read


Andrew Sobel is published widely on client loyalty and capabilities required to build trusted business relationships, including his first book, the best-selling “Clients for Life.” In addition to “Power Questions,” his other books include “Making Rain” and the award-winning “All for One: 10 Strategies for Building Trusted Client Partnerships.” Sobel has more than 30 years of experience as a senior-management consultant, an executive educator and a coach. I recently spoke with him about the power of questions in business.

Plenty of people talk a lot in an effort to demonstrate their knowledge. How does asking questions and listening instead make one appear smarter?

You’re sitting at a dinner party. One guest never stops talking. He’s obviously very smart and has traveled extensively around the world. He’s happy to take on any issue that comes up in the conversation, and he’s never at a loss for words. And no one else can get a word in edgewise. A second guest is quieter but very interested in you. She asks several thoughtful questions about your work and your experiences, such as “Why did you decide to take that job?” and “How did you get your start in your business?” You actually have an interesting, give-and-take conversation with her. She’s also had a lot of interesting experiences, but she doesn’t wear them on her sleeve or dominate the conversation talking about them.

Which guest have you found endearing and charming? Which of the two is most thoughtful? More importantly, which one would you like to spend more time with?

When you ask thoughtful questions you supercharge your conversations. Power questions actually give power to the other person — power to talk about what’s important to them, power to lead the conversation where they want it to go, power to express their thoughts more clearly than ever before.

A good question can get to the heart of the real issue. It helps you understand the other person’s goals and aspirations. It enables the other person to reach their own conclusions. It reframes the problem. It inspires commitment. For example: the simple question “What’s the best way for us to spend this time together?” creates commitment.

If you find your mind wanders easily, how can you learn to focus and become the sort of listener that power questions require?

Good listening, above all, requires curiosity. If you’re not genuinely curious about others, why would you listen to them? To listen well also requires mindfulness. That’s where you are focused entirely on the moment, and you refrain from passing judgment on what’s being said. It helps to get your body language aligned with the other person: Look them in the eye, glancing away periodically, and face towards them in your chair. If you take notes, it helps you focus. But don’t take so many notes that it’s distracting. While the other person is talking, drop your own agenda, listen and then synthesize. “So it sounds like there are really two separate issues going on here …”

How does asking questions help you to build trust with others?

One of the key elements of trust is believing the other person is focused on your agenda and your needs, not just their own interests. Trust, after all, can be defined as “the belief that you will meet my expectations of you.” When you ask good questions, it shows you are focused on the other person’s agenda, not yours, and that you are interested in understanding them and their issues — and so they help build trust. Remember, though, that it’s essential to be genuine and authentic when you ask questions. Otherwise, you may sound like the telemarketer who says, with obvious insincerity, “How are you this evening?” as soon as you pick up the phone.

Can you suggest a few good questions people can use at networking events where they don’t know anyone and explain why they work well?

Good ice-breaking questions get the conversation started. They encourage the other person to talk. They refer to current events or happenings. They are not personally intrusive or inappropriate (e.g., “That’s a gorgeous dress!” When you first meet, never make comments about someone’s clothing or appearance, especially when it’s someone of the opposite sex). For example, these questions can all help break the ice and get the conversation started:

  • What’s your connection with this event?
  • What’s your connection with the host?
  • Where have you come in from?
  • Did you have as much trouble getting here as I did? Some traffic!
  • So, what sort of work do you do?

Once you’re into a conversation, you can go deeper with questions like these:

  • Where did you grow up? Do you still have family there? Do you ever go back?
  • What’s a typical workday like for you?
  • How did you end up in … (finance, marketing, law, medicine, etc.)?
  • What parts of your job do you enjoy the most? The least?
  • So when you’re not shaking things up at work, how do spend your free time?

What is the most powerful question a person can ask? What question do you most like to be asked?

The most powerful question varies according to the situation. For example, “Why do you want to do that?” can be a very powerful question in a professional setting that helps you get at the higher-level goal or need that is driving someone. But in a different context, “Why?” could seem critical or carping — for example, asking a teenager, “Why did you do that?”

I’m not that different than many other people. I like to be asked about my dreams, aspirations, and passions. About what motivates me. About why I do what I do.