Asking the right questions can get you the information you want. It can also make the person feel important or cared about.
Here are a dozen questions that can be particularly potent:
What do you think? J.W. Marriott, founder of the hotel chain, called those the four most powerful words.
How are you, really? Everyone reflexively asks, “How are you?” And the response is usually an equally reflexive, “Fine.” Adding the word “really,” increases the chance you’ll get an honest answer, and at minimum, suggests you actually care.
How am I doing, really? Using the word “really” conveys that you want honest feedback, even if negative. You might ask a co-worker, boss, customer, friend, or romantic partner.
What are you looking for, really? That question is especially useful on first dates, in job interviews, and for salespersons.
How do you think I should do it? That question can elicit a person’s ideas for tactics to accomplish a task or project, whether it’s landing a job, buying a car, preparing a presentation, or meeting the love of your life.
What else should I know? This is a catch-all question that’s often useful to ask at the end of a job interview, before agreeing to a deal, and in many other information-centric conversations.
Are there downsides? This question is a check against too quickly falling in love with an idea, what former Fed Chair Alan Greenspan called, “irrational exuberance.”
Could there be an even better option? A good time to ask this is when you’ve brainstormed and arrived at what you think is the best option. That question subjects that option to a final test. A more stringent on variant on that is, "Is their low-cost, easy alternative that might yield most of the benefit more quickly and at less cost?"
What’s your best offer? Unless a first offer is clearly fair, it’s worth asking that question rather than accepting the first offer. That question is stronger than, for example, “Can you do better?” or “Is that negotiable?” Those two convey that if the person won’t make you better offer, you’ll accept the first one.
A related point: Axiomatic to getting what you want is asking for it. A surprising number of my career counseling clients hadn’t asked their network or potential employers for the kind of job they really would like. As long as it’s ethical, ask, and if someone says no, which is likely, ask someone else and ask another someone else until someone says yes or you realize that what you’ve asked for is too unlikely to be granted by anyone. In that case, you may need to give up or tweak what you’re asking for.
Whom do you think I should talk with? Often you sense that the first person you’re asking about a problem isn’t the right one. But if you ask, “Can I speak with the supervisor?” or “Who’s in charge?” you risk making the person feel less-than and thus less likely to refer you. “Whom do you think I should talk with?” imposes less such risk.
Want to walk me through your day? That question can be with your romantic partner and especially when speaking with your child after school. It’s more likely to reveal useful information than, “What did you do in school today?” (Typical answer: “Nothing.”)
How can I make your life easier? This question is often welcome relief to people, from boss to romantic partner, especially those who feel overwhelmed at life’s complexities.
This article is part of a series. The others are:
Dr. Nemko's nine books are available. You can reach career and personal coach Marty Nemko at firstname.lastname@example.org.