You head out on a first date. A blind date. It’s a moment filled with anticipation and, if we’re honest, a little dread. What will the person be like? Will it be someone I find an easy connection with, the start of something new, or another dead end? You spot your date across the room. Sit down at the table. And the ritual begins. You ask a few introductory questions and the conversation gets started. This is going okay you think, I mean, at least there’s dialogue.
And then you notice something. Dialogue really isn’t the right word to describe what’s happening here. Extended monologue is more like it. It’s 40 minutes into the encounter, and you are starting to wonder if your date ever stops talking long enough to take a breath. You realize you now know all about this person’s job, car, house, previous dating experiences … and, well, frankly you started tuning out about 15 minutes ago.
What’s wrong with this picture? Oh, it’s easy to see spot the problem – with the other person. But how often have we found ourselves in exactly the same situation – except the tables are turned. We are the ones talking, and talking, and talking. So busy imparting our wisdom about a client’s brand, state of the industry and sure-fire strategy that the client doesn’t need to say a word. Oh, it’s different…or so we tell ourselves. We are certainly sharing important perspectives to our client. It’s what they pay us for after all, right?
Not so fast. How did you feel during the blind date with the never-ending monologue? Probably about the same as your client does. We have fallen into the age-old trap of thinking that talking is more important, more valuable, than listening.
Let’s take a step back. In fact, let’s take a step way back – all the way to ancient Greece. Socrates, the most notable of philosophers, had a different – dare I say it – philosophy. Discovering truth and meaning was not an exercise of talking at his students – it was rooted in asking questions.
That’s right: Asking questions. It’s not a new or groundbreaking approach. Yet, think how quickly a question can communicate interest, uncover perceptions and assumptions and help focus in on what’s truly important.
As a strategic planner, I see the value of asking questions every day. With every engagement, I start at the same place, seeking to understand what lies behind the request for assistance. It begins with a clear understanding of the challenge – the ‘ask’ as we like to call it. What is driving the request for a new proposal or plan? What are the desired goals – and the practical and emotional reasons behind them? How will we know when we have been successful? Exploring these questions allows us to go deeper than the surface-level request and get to the heart of the matter.
Asking questions – and intently listening to what is both said and not said – is a cornerstone of successful planning and building long-term client relationships. Don’t rest on your own perceptions or assumptions. And resist the temptation to impart your strategic wisdom before first learning more about your client and their needs.
Let’s go back to our blind date. Now, imagine this time that the person sitting across from you is Socrates. (Yes, I know, this takes some imagination and possibly time travel.) Within minutes you find that you are connecting in a new and deeper way, you are learning about yourself as well as your partner and you find yourself wanting to know more, spend more time and when insight or counsel is given – you are ready to listen! The age difference, funny clothes and language barrier aside, you may have had one of your most successful blind dates.
The next time you find yourself ready to jump in and provide answers, try asking a question first. The first time may feel a little awkward, but it won’t always be Greek to you.
Looking to learn more about how to ask questions? I highly recommend Andrew Sobel’s latest book Power Questions: Build Relationships, Win New Business, and Influence Others.