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The 1 Question that Improves All of Your Consulting Firm’s Rainmaking

Your consulting firm is actively pursuing an engagement with Stephanie Stiltsmuffins. The process of coaxing Stephanie from high-level interest to a signed contract revolves around a single activity: Discovery.

However, discovery–seeking information–can sometimes require you to ask uncomfortable questions. Is there a way to ease those awkward moments? Absolutely.

If you’re a fan of the Context Discussion, you know it’s a finely-crafted, six-part framework for discovering pretty much everything your consulting firm needs to know to win a project from Stephanie. Inside the boundaries of the Context Discussion you’ll field important queries, such as:

“What are your objectives?” “By when does this need to be completed?” “What’s the decision-making process?” “What’s your experience with sharing snacks on Zoom?” and, “How can you find anything with so many tabs open in your browser?”

Yet, despite the elegance of the Context Discussion framework, you may be hesitant to ask for some information that would be particularly helpful in closing your consulting deal with Stephanie.

You bite your tongue rather than pry about sensitive financial information, tricky internal politics, or how stubbornly Stephanie will cling to an opinion she’s expressed that could jeopardize the project’s success.

Your hesitance is understandable. You’re sensing a possibility that you could damage your relationship with Stephanie (and knock your consulting firm out of contention for the engagement.)

What you need is a way to diminish the discomfort, reduce the risk, put yourself at ease, and ensure you retain your balance in the conversation with Stephanie.

In every rainmaking situation, you can improve your ability to gather information and reduce the risk of missteps with one question:

The Permission Query

The Permission Query is a question you ask before your uncomfortable question(s). It creates a mutual agreement between you and Stephanie–your consulting firm’s prospect–about what’s in bounds.

You explicitly (and quickly) define what’s acceptable, respectable, and unobjectionable with some variation of “May I ask about…” or “Do you mind if we look into…” or “Are you open to…”

Interestingly, you’ll find during your consulting firm’s pursuits that no matter how difficult, uncomfortable, awkward or sensitive the information is you’re seeking, if you ask for permission first, you’re likely to get it.

Asking for permission demonstrates that you’re thinking Right-Side Up. That you’re putting Stephanie’s interests before your consulting firm’s objectives.

Below are a few examples the Permission Query:

  • May I ask a delicate question?
  • I have to share some results today that are not altogether favorable. Is that okay?
  • May I ask a personal question?
  • Do you mind if I push back a bit on what you just said?
  • Are you okay with a few more questions?
  • May I offer a suggestion?

The Permission Query doesn’t always work, of course. For instance, Stephanie may be wholly unwilling to reveal her pistachio pie recipe, even if you request permission to ask about her crusty concoction.

You may also be asked why you’re seeking the sensitive information, and as long as you have a reasonable rationale at hand, your request is likely to be accepted.

However, even if permission isn’t immediately granted, your Permission Query opens the door for deep, trust-laden communication, and a long-lasting consulting relationship between your consulting firm and Ms. Stiltsmuffins.

Have you had success with the Permission Query when talking with your consulting firm’s prospects?


16 Comments
  1. Eva D.
    January 27, 2021 at 7:15 am Reply

    I never thought about asking for permission as a way to show care. What I’ve so far done was to logically explain the context and ask a direct question – “in order to do this, I need to know that”.

    Perhaps this is a hallmark of age, too. Being in my 30s, I still remember many of the struggles of my younger self, namely the ambition to start doing things without constantly asking for permission.

    Learning to see permission as an act of care, rather than lack of authority is a huge light bulb. Thank you, David!

    • David A. Fields
      January 27, 2021 at 7:47 am Reply

      What a fascinating perspective, Eva. It’s understandable that anyone who grows up under an “ask for permission” regime (whether because of their gender, race, culture, family dynamics or some other factor) would actively strive to break free from its grip. If you’re told you have to ask for permission, it implies you’re lesser-than. Asking for permission becomes an act of self-deprecation.

      Fortunately, as your light bulb moment illuminates, all of that perspective is upside down. It’s all rooted in a self-view. When we flip ourselves Right-Side Up and focus on Them (clients, prospects, others) and the relationship with them, then asking for permission is, as you so aptly put it, an act of care.

      I deeply appreciate your viewpoint, Eva, and that you opened up further dialogue.

  2. Buyan Thyagarajan
    January 27, 2021 at 7:37 am Reply

    I love this article where I had been burnt a bit on awkward questions. Permission does help I that regard . You had mentioned context discussion framework which I never heard of . Is this from a book or where can we learn more on this ?

    • David A. Fields
      January 27, 2021 at 7:53 am Reply

      Buyan, awkward questions are no fun, and if you’re charging into them one after another, it’s easy to get worn down. You’re definitely not alone in that regard. I’m glad you’ve found that the Permission Query helps!

      You’ll find the Context Discussion detailed in my first two books. The one I’d recommend is easily found here (http://guidetowinningclients.com) or here.

      Thanks for contributing your experience, Buyan.

  3. Jay Arthur
    January 27, 2021 at 9:22 am Reply

    Soft sell:
    I was wondering if you might consider…?

    Tag Questions:
    You’d want me to pursue every opportunity, wouldn’t you?
    You wouldn’t want me to waste time on minor problems, would you?

    I’ve found Robert Dilt’s book, Sleight of Mouth, very useful.

    • David A. Fields
      January 27, 2021 at 10:50 am Reply

      Excellent additions, Jay. The “tag questions” are a different technique than Permission Queries. Those are meant to gain agreement to a direction, which is also very useful and powerful.

      I’m glad you added your insights, Jay.

  4. Carole Napolitano
    January 27, 2021 at 10:17 am Reply

    Thanks for this, David. As always, your guidance is focused and helpful. I would like to build on your advice . . . and will begin by using your technique: might I offer a slight adaptation of what you recommend? I completely agree with the idea of using permission queries to broach sensitive topics. Sometimes a simple closed question is fine and provides you with all the information you need. However, I would suggest considering where using an open-ended question might provide you with the opportunity to not only surface/explore important considerations . . . but also to invite your client to partner with you in finding the best approach to dealing with sensitive situations. For example: “What do you think the best way would be to handle the difficult feedback I have to report?” or “To what extent are you okay with my offering some push-back re: what you just said?” or “How would you like me to respond when I notice something that raises a red flag for me?”

    • David A. Fields
      January 27, 2021 at 10:56 am Reply

      You’ve wisely added another category of very useful queries, Carole: Collaboration Queries. A couple of your examples are excellent collaboration questions and tie nicely to one of my favorite consulting principles: “Never solve a problem yourself that you can share with your client.”

      You also slipped in a great Permission Query: “…are you okay with my offering pushback…?”

      Thank you for your outstanding addition to the conversation, Carole.

  5. Catherine Mattice
    January 27, 2021 at 12:36 pm Reply

    Hi David,
    As always, great article. One thing that popped up for me though is how gender and age, and perhaps other categories, play a role. A woman always has to consider if in being too gracious she’s undercutting her power and influence. Obviously we all want to be gracious, but I suspect there would many situations where asking permission could hurt her in the client’s subconscious mind. There’s a great example of this where Hillary Clinton tells Obama at the beginning of one of their debates, “I am honored to be here with you.” Obama politely gives a little bow or shakes her hand or something, but doesn’t say that back to her. (I couldn’t find the video, it’s a good little case study.) By saying she was honored she demonstrated she looked up to Obama, so now she has less power in that scenario. Anyway, these are the little nuances of communication we all have to think about, but definitely more often an added layer for women.

    • David A. Fields
      January 27, 2021 at 1:39 pm Reply

      Catherine, your comment mirrors Eva’s, and provides useful perspective. There are all sorts of nuances that go along with asking for permission, colored by gender, age, national culture, race and more.

      That said, in Western cultures, a confident, self-assured tone and the sincere belief that you’re an equal to the prospect, and a respectful Permission Query combine well. You don’t lose influence, and you do gain access to information.

      I appreciate you volunteering the additional perspective and broadening horizons for me and for other readers, Catherine.

    • Eva D.
      January 29, 2021 at 4:05 am Reply

      Interesting angle, Catherine! Comparing showing respect and asking for permission.

      I’ve seen many interviews where a well known and praised interviewer says something like “What a great pleasure it is to have you here, I admire you so much” and the guest replies with “Thanks”. It’s not that the guest doesn’t think the same, (s)he just choses to show it later or in another way (by being there in the first place, even).

      I like to think that showing respect to someone shouldn’t diminish our own value. And vice versa – that being respected by someone shouldn’t increase it either. Maybe that’s what David means by confident and self-assured.

      But I have found that a little humour can do a great job in “balancing the power”. And would actually be curious to read a post on the role of humour in consulting, especially since David uses it so successfully!

      • David A. Fields
        January 29, 2021 at 8:20 am Reply

        First off, let’s set the record straight: I never use humor. Or humour. Or a humidor, for that matter.

        (I hew more to a serious, pun-free approach.)

        Your treatment of “respect” vs. “sense of value” is excellent, Eva, as are your examples. Part of the story is not letting others’ behavior define your sense of self-worth, no matter what they do or say.

        However, a client’s perspective of you does matter. Quite a lot. It determines whether or not they will engage your consulting firm. And high confidence in yourself and the value your consulting firm’s work has an enormous, positive effect. When you live in that confidence and ask for permission you’re ticking multiple boxes for the client: reassurance, respect, caring, sincere interest, etc.

        Thank you for joining the conversation with such smart insights, Eva!

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