Questioning Questions

Decades ago I had an idea that questions could be vehicles to facilitate change in addition to eliciting answers. Convention went against me: the accepted use of questions (framing devices, biased by the Asker, that extract a defined range of answers) is built into our culture. But overlooked is their inability to extract good data or accurate answers due to the bias of the Asker; overlooked is their ability to facilitate congruent change.

What Is A Question?

Questions are biased by the expectations, assumptions, goals, unconscious beliefs and subjective experience of both the Responder and the Asker and limit responses accordingly. In other words, questions can’t extract ‘good’ data. They’re certainly not designed to lead Responders through to real change or accurate revelations. (What? Did you really say what I think I heard? offers a broad discussion of bias.) Here are the most prevalent ways we limit our Communication Partner’s responses:

Need to Know Askers pose questions to pull conscious data from the Responder because of their own ‘need to know’, data collection, or curiosity. An example (Note: all following italicized questions are posed as a mythical hairdresser seeking business) might be: Why do you wear your hair like that?

These questions risk overlooking more relevant answers that are stored beyond the parameters of the question posed – often in the unconscious.

Pull Data Askers pose questions to pull a range of implicating data considered useful to ‘make a case’ in a ploy to obtain their desired results (i.e. sales, leadership, marcom, coaching). Don’t you think it might be time to get a haircut?

These questions run a high risk of missing the full range of, or accurate, responses. Certainly they offer no route to enabling choice, decisions, or collaboration/buy-in. They encourage resistance, partial/missed answers, and lies.

Manipulate Agreement/Response Questions that direct the Responder to find a specific set of responses to fit the needs and expectations of the Asker. Can you think of a time you’ve felt ‘cool’ when you’ve had short hair? Or Have you ever thought of having your hair look like Kanye/Ozzy/Justin? Or What would it feel like to have hair like Kanye/Ozzy/Justin? Wouldn’t you say your hairstyle makes you look X?

These questions restrict possibility, cause resistance, create distrust, and encourage lying.

Doubt Directive These questions, sometimes called ‘leading questions’ are designed to cause Responders to doubt their own effectiveness, in order to create an opening for the Asker. Do you think your hairstyle works for you?

These narrow the range of possible responses, often creating some form of resistance or defensive lies; they certainly cause defensiveness and distrust.

Questions restrict responses to the Asker’s parameters, regardless of their intent or the influencer’s level of professionalism and knowledge. Potentially important, accurate data – not to mention the real possibility of facilitating change – is left on the table and instead promote lost business, failure, distrust, bad data collection, and delayed success. Decision Scientists end up gathering incomplete data that creates implementation issues; leaders and coaches push clients toward the change they perceive is needed and often miss the real change needed and possible. The fields of sales and coaching are particularly egregious.

The cost of bias and restriction is unimaginable. Here’s an especially unfortunate example of a well-respected research company that delayed the discovery of important findings due to the biases informing their research questions. I got a call from one of the founders of Challenger Sales to discuss my Buying Facilitation® model. Their research had ‘recently’ discovered that sales are lost/delayed/hampered due to the buyer’s behind-the-scenes change issues that aren’t purchase-driven and sales doesn’t address – and yay for me for figuring this out 35 years ago.

Interesting. They figured this out now? Even David Sandler called me in 1992 before he died to tell me he appreciated how far out of the box I went to find the resolution to the sales problem (He also offered to buy me out, but that’s a different story.). The data was always there. I uncovered this in 1983. But the CEB missed it because their research surveys posed biased questions that elicited data matching their expectations. Indeed, even during our conversations, my Communication Partner never got rid of his solution-placement (sales) biases and we never were able to find a way to partner.

What Is An Answer?

Used to elicit or push data, the very formulation of conventional questions restricts answers. If I ask ‘What did you have for breakfast?’ you cannot reply ‘I went to the gym yesterday.’ Every answer is restricted by the biases within the question. I’m always disappointed when I hear sellers say “Buyers are liars” or coaches say “They didn’t really want to change.” Or therapists or managers or leaders say “They’re resisting”. Askers cause the answers they get.

  1. Because we enter conversations with an agenda, intuition, directive, etc., the answers we receive are partial at best, inaccurate at worst, and potentially cause resistance, sabotage, and disregard.
  2. There are unknown facts, feelings, historic data, goals, etc. that lie within the Responder’s unconscious that hold real answers and cannot be found using merely the curiosity of the Asker.
  3. By approaching situations with bias, Askers can only successfully connect with those whose conscious biases align with their own, leaving behind many who could change, or connect when their unconscious data is recognized. And conventional questions cannot get to the unconscious.
  4. Because influencers are unaware of how their particular bias restricts an answer, they have no concept if there are different answers possible, and often move forward with bad data.

So why does it matter if we’re biasing our questions? It matters because we are missing accurate results; it matters because our questions instill resistance; it matters because we’re missing opportunities to serve and support change.

When sellers ask leading questions to manipulate prospects, or coaches ask influencing questions to generate action, we’re coaxing our Communication Partner in a direction that, as we now recognize, is often biased. Imagine if we could reconfigure questions to elicit accurate data for researchers or marcom folks; or enable buyers to take quick action from ads, cold calls or large purchases; or help coaching clients change behaviors congruently and quickly; or encourage buy-in during software implementations. I’m suggesting questions can facilitate real change.

What Is Change?

Our brain stores data rather haphazardly in our unconscious, making it difficult to find what we need when we need it, and making resistance prevalent when it seems our Status Quo is being threatened. But over the last decades, I have mapped the sequence of systemic change. Following this route, I’ve designed a way to use questions as directional devices to pull relevant data in the proper sequence so we can lead Responders through their own internal, congruent, change process and avoid resistance. Not only does this broaden the range of successful results, but it enables quicker decisions and buy-in – not to mentiontruly offer a Servant Leader, win/win communication. Let’s look at what’s keeping us wedded to our Status Quo and how questions can enable change.

All of us are a ‘system’ of subjectivity collected during our lifetime: unique rules, values, habits, history, goals, experience, etc. that operates consensually to create and maintain our Status Quo; it resides in our unconscious and defines our Status Quo. Without it, we wouldn’t have criteria for any choices, or actions, or habits whatsoever. Our system is hard wired to keep us who we are (Systems Congruence).

To learn something new, to do something different or learn a new behavior, to buy something, to take vitamins or get a divorce or use new software or be willing to forgive a friend, the Status Quo must buy in to change from within – an inside job. Information pulled or pushed – regardless of the intent, or relationship, or efficacy – will be resisted.

For congruent change to occur – even a small one – appropriate elements within our Status Quo must buy into, and have prepared for, a possibly disruptive addition (idea, product, etc.). But since the process is internal, idiosyncratic, and unconscious, our biased questions cause the system to defend itself and we succeed only with those folks whose unconscious biases and beliefs mirror our own.

  1. People hear each other through their own biases. You ask biased questions, receive biased answers, and hit pay dirt only when your biases match. Everyone else will ignore, resist, misunderstand, mishear, act out, sabotage, forget, ignore, etc.
  2. Due to their biased and restricting nature, your questions will not facilitate those who are not ready, willing, or able to manage internal change congruently regardless of the wisdom of your comments or their efficacy.
  3. Without the Responder being ready, willing, and able to change, ACCORDING TO THEIR OWN CRITERIA AND SYSTEMS RULES, they cannot buy, accept, adopt, or change in any way.

To manage congruent change, align the Status Quo, and enable the steps to achieve buy-in – I’ve developed Facilitative Questions that work comfortably with conventional questions and lead Responders to:

  • find their own answers hidden within their unconscious,
  • retrieve complete, relevant, accurate answers at the right time, in the right order to
  • traverse the sequenced steps to congruent, systemic change/excellence, while
  • avoiding restriction and resistance and
  • include their own values and subjective experience.

It’s possible to help folks make internal changes and find their own brand of excellence.

Facilitative Questions

Facilitative Questions (FQs) employ a new skill set that is built upon systems thinking: listening for systems (i.e. no bias) and Servant Leadership. Even on a cold call or in content marketing, sellers can enable buyers down their route to change and buy-in; coaches can lead clients through their own unique change without resistance; leaders can get buy-in immediately; change implementations won’t get resistance; advertisers and marketers can create action.

Using specific words, in a very specific sequence, it’s possible to pose questions that are free of bias, need or manipulation and guide congruent change.

Facilitative Question Not information gathering, pull, or manipulative, FQs are guiding/directional tools, like a GPS system. Like a GPS they don’t need the details of travel – what you’re wearing, what function you’re attending – to dictate two left turns. They lead Responders congruently, without any bias, from where they’re at to Excellence. How would you know if it were time to reconsider your hairstyle?

This question is a guiding mechanism to efficiently enable a route through the Responder’s largely unconscious path to congruent change.

Here’s the big idea: using questions directed to help Others efficiently recognize their own route to Excellence, and change as appropriate vs. using questions to seek answers that benefit the Asker. This shift in focus alone creates an automatic trust.

An example is a question we designed for Wachovia to increase sales and appointments. Instead of seeking prospects for an appointment to pitch new products (i.e. using appointments as a sales tool), we designed questions to immediately facilitate discovery of need, taking into account most small businesses already have a banking relationship. After trialing a few different FQs, our opening question became: How would you know when it’s time to consider adding new banking partners, for those times your current bank can’t give you what you need? This question shifted the response to 100 prospecting calls from 10 appointments and 2 closes over 11 months, to 37 invites to meet from the prospect, and 29 closes over 3 months. Facilitative Questions helped the right prospects engage immediately.

When used with coaching clients, buyers, negotiation partners, advertisements, or even teenagers, these questions create action within the Responder, causing them to recognize internal incongruences and deficiencies, and be guided through their own options. (Because these questions aren’t natural to us, I’ve designed a tool and program to teach the ‘How’ of formulating them.).

The responses to FQs are quite different from conventional questions. So when answering How would you know if it were time to reconsider your hairstyle?, the Responder is directed by word use, word placement, and an understanding of systems, to think of time, history, people, ego, comparisons, family. Instead of pulling data, you’re directing to, guiding through, and opening the appropriate change ‘boxes’ within the Responder’s unconscious Status Quo. It’s possible Responders will ultimately get to their answers without Facilitative Questions, but using them, it’s possible to help Responders organize their change criteria very quickly accurately. Using Facilitative Questions, we must:

  1. Enter with a blank brain, as a neutral navigator, servant leader, with a goal to facilitate change.
  2. Trust our Communication Partners have their own answers.
  3. Stay away from information gathering or data sharing/gathering until they are needed at the end.
  4. Focus on helping the Other define, recognize, and understand their system so they can discover where it’s broken.
  5. Put aside ego, intuition, assumptions, and ‘need to know.’ We’ll never understand another’s subjective experience; we can later add our knowledge.
  6. Listen for systems, not content.

FQs enable congruent, systemic, change. I recognize this is not the conventional use of questions, but we have a choice: we can either facilitate a Responder’s path down their own unique route and travel with them as Change Facilitators – ready with our ideas, solutions, directions as they discover a need we can support – or use conventional, biased questions that limit possibility. For change to occur, people must go through these change steps anyway; we’re just making it more efficient for them as we connect through our desire to truly Serve. We can assist, or wait to find those who have already completed the journey. They must do it anyway: it might as well be with us.

I welcome opportunities to put Facilitative Questions into the world. Formulating them requires a new skill set that avoids any bias (Listening for Systems, for example). But they add an extra dimension to helping us all serve each other.


About the Author

Sharon Drew MorgenSharon Drew Morgen is a visionary, original thinker, and thought leader in change management and decision facilitation. She works as a coach, trainer, speaker, and consultant, and has authored 9 books including the New York Times Business Bestseller Selling with Integrity. Morgen developed the Buying Facilitation® method (www.sharondrewmorgen.com) in 1985 to facilitate change decisions, notably to help buyers buy and help leaders and coaches affect permanent change. Her newest book What? www.didihearyou.com explains how to close the gap between what’s said and what’s heard. She can be reached at [email protected]

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