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7 Inquiry Methods You Must Master

Is asking questions more important and trickier than you realized? Many sales techniques exhort you to ask questions that will reveal a prospect’s situation, uncover their deeper needs, and heighten the perceived value of your solution. But what if questions serve a different purpose (they do) and can be made more effective by following certain rules (they can)?

First, though, what is the role of questions? For most adults, inquiry is a route to information. For teenagers, questions are a rhetorical way to emphasize their point. For toddlers, questions serve to drive their parents batty. There’s also a more nuanced role for questions.


In their subtlest role, questions are like keys on a piano. They don’t actually make the sound we’re seeking, but we must strike them to hear the music. The music, in this case, is listening. Questions allow us to listen.

Research in 2012 at Columbia University** underscored the importance of listening on influence:

When people feel ‘‘listened to’’ by would-be agents of influence their liking for, commitment to, and trust in the agents tend to increase, thereby expanding the agents’ influence power.

[Listeners] reap both informational and relational benefits that make them more influential.

In other words, listening allows you to demonstrate your value more effectively and, in and of itself, helps build the trust required to win a project. And in order to listen well, you need to ask questions well.

The following seven guidelines and the example questions will help you be a better listener; one who builds trust and wins gigs.

  • To gain influence, listening must be paired with effective expressing. In other words, you must gracefully interweave your questions with assertions. The graphic below illustrates this point.


  • Don’t cross the line from inquirer to inquisitor. Asking too many questions can backfire. However, your prospect won’t feel like she’s being interrogated if you preview where you’re going and ask for agreement. Below is an example:

“I’d like our discussion to cover six areas…[say the six] …will that work for you?”

  • Be in the moment, but don’t get lost in the moment. Yes, you have to pay attention, go with the flow and give your prospect (a little) time to stumble through their explanations; however, avoid getting sucked into the weeds and squandering your limited time with the prospect. Sometimes you’ll need to pepper your listening with statements like the one below:

“I’m sorry to interrupt, but I want to be respectful of your time. Is this a fair summary of where you were going? [Concisely paraphrase the prospect’s point.]”

  • Demonstrate your mastery, understanding and empathy. A lame question like, “What keeps you up at night?” shows no sophistication and creates no connection. Compare that to:

“You still only have the Kalamazoo plant and it looks like your market share is expanding rapidly into the Northeast. Is that creating the stress, or is there something else?”

  • Employ questions that enlighten the prospect. Often the ideal answer is, “I’m not sure. Let me think about that.” Then you and the prospect start exploring as a team. Learning, creating value and connecting.


  • Listen. This is obvious, but bears repeating. Questioning only works if you’re listening. Remember: questions are the piano keys, listening is the music. Further, listen to understand and build a relationship. This means you listen attentively (not politely nodding while formulating your reply) and you listen to information that may not immediately appear germane. You sprinkle the conversation liberally with questions like…

“Can you tell me more about that?” and “How does [point the prospect just made] affect [point the prospect made earlier]?”

  • Highlight your dedication to the prospect’s success. The best questions are designed to simultaneously inform a winning proposal and show your concern for the prospect’s best interests. Questions about perceived risks and concerns are excellent examples. For instance…

“What could stop us from succeeding?” and “What are your biggest concerns about doing a project with us?”

As consultants, we’re naturally curious. But asking the right questions in the right way (then listening!) is an art, and one worth mastering. The seven guidelines above should give you a running start.

It’s important that we learn from each other, so here’s my question for you: what one, non-obvious question you have found to be particularly helpful in conversations with prospects? Please post your answer in the comments section below.


  1. Robert Keteyian
    February 11, 2015 at 9:16 am Reply

    I always appreciate the care you take regarding the language you use with prospects/clients. Although we each have to find our own natural voice, the linguistic precision you demonstrate is very helpful. Being genuinely curious and exercising leadership goes a long way. Humble Inquiry by Edgar Schein demonstrates the art of asking good questions. He says we do too much telling and not enough asking.

    • davidafields
      February 25, 2015 at 8:52 pm Reply

      Great reading suggestion. Humble Inquiry is a good resource. Another terrific read is Power Questions by Andrew Sobel. Early in my career, the leader of a training session said that we all rush to advise, or probe, or tell our own story; we don’t give space for others to simply express what is in their hearts and on their minds. That lesson has stayed with me, and has always been helpful as a consultant (and parent).

  2. Dan Janal
    February 11, 2015 at 11:39 am Reply

    Great column! I love your four quadrants. I can see that my “know it all” style is not a good one to continue using! Thanks for the advice.

    I like Tony Robbins’ technique of asking people to define their ideas. For example, “I want a big house.”
    Q: What does a “big” house look like?
    The answer could be radically different than what you think. You might think 4 bedrooms. He might think 20,000 square feet with a 20-spot garage!

    I ask my prospects and new new clients “What does a successful PR campaign look like to you?” If they give wildly unrealistic answers, this gives me a chance to manage their expectations so we can get off on the right foot – or decide that this is not a good fit.

    • davidafields
      February 25, 2015 at 8:59 pm Reply

      Dan, you’ve been very successful with PRLeads and clearly you marry leadership and inquiry well. Your example with new PR clients is a great one. Finding out the prospect’s desired outcome is, as you point out, critical to earning happy clients (and turning down prospects who will never be satisfied).

  3. Raleigh R. PInskey
    February 11, 2015 at 12:26 pm Reply

    I have found that “Are you open to….” …. and “I have a question I’d like you to …..” turn heads, perk up ears and focus eyes. No one feels accused or abused. For the most part I have found that they feel listened to; are more approachable; and appreciated. My NLP mentors, Bill Thomanson and Tony Robbins, have taught me well…. and I am grateful. And David, what you have offered up here is fantastic, helpful and so meaningful. Thank you for your time and effort in putting this together. I feel expanded. I am grateful.

    • davidafields
      February 25, 2015 at 9:06 pm Reply

      Thank you for those kind words, Raleigh! I’m totally in your canoe: “Are you open to…” is my go-to phrase to spark engagement and move relationships to the next level. Your use of “approachable” and “appreciated” in the same phrase is insightful and a excellent reminder: people who feel appreciated by you are much more open to your advances. Thanks for posting.

  4. Gale Stafford
    February 11, 2015 at 1:57 pm Reply

    Great post, David. As usual your advice is very practical and sound. I like that you quoted the research from Columbia University on listening … and how listening grows your capacity to influence others. It is true! Listening as a fundamental skill seems to be overlooked by many consultants but also many of those in management and leadership positions — it happens to be a topic cover a lot in my book for managers and executives, which is coming out next month. Thanks for always sharing such high quality insights.

    • davidafields
      February 25, 2015 at 9:09 pm Reply

      Congrats on the book, Gale. Make sure to let us all know when it comes out! The research was fascinating and the nuance that listening itself, independent of the content, creates influence should be impetus for consultants and executives alike to brush up on our listening skills.

  5. Kevin Martin
    February 11, 2015 at 2:56 pm Reply

    Good post. The most important form of communication is listening – God gave us 2 ears and 1 mouth. The art of asking the right questions allows us to become better listeners (and therefore communicators). This is something I practice, but still have a great deal to learn. Thanks for sharing.

    • davidafields
      February 25, 2015 at 9:12 pm Reply

      Thanks for your comments, Kevin. Personally, I have found that learning to listen well is a life-long endeavor. There are definitely times I reflect on a conversation with a prospect and think, “Man, why didn’t I listen more?” The good news is that as long as we’re aware of our need to improve, we are likely to make progress.

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