Utilize the power of inquiry: People Power - May 2016

By Sam Allman

Recently, I have been writing a lot about how people skills embellish people power—how the ability to connect, engage and build relationships trumps expertise, knowledge and position. The core characteristic of those with strong people skills is empathy: the ability to put oneself into another’s shoes, the ability to recognize and understand their feelings and see life from their perspective. Empathy allows us to feel the pain and suffering of others. Empathy is the root of compassion and the means to changing our attitudes. When we understand the motives and actions of others, we have moved from judging to understanding, which eventually gets us to respecting, valuing and caring.

Empathy is the most important characteristic in selling, leadership and influence. When others feel understood, their minds open and they become susceptible to persuasion. Ironically, saying that you understand someone is insufficient; you must be able to communicate that understanding, or it doesn’t count. 

My children often told me that I didn’t understand what they were going through. The fact is, I did, but I wasn’t able to effectively communicate that understanding to them, so their minds remained closed and impenetrable to my influence—not a fun place to be in as a caring parent. My people power was diminished by my children’s belief that I didn’t understand them, that I lacked empathy. 

The archaic ideal of a great salesperson was the ability to talk—he could sell ice cubes to Eskimos, people used to say, or dirt to farmers. Peak performing salespeople have learned that telling is not selling. Great selling starts with listening: getting to know and understand what customers want and need; feeling the pain from which they are suffering; and seeing the world through their eyes. When that is done, a sale usually follows. It reminds me of an old Russian proverb: if you want to influence someone, use your ears.

Listening is at the root of the core people power skill of empathy. Good listening skills are effective if people will freely talk. However, in a selling, parenting or leading environment, that is not always easy. Some of us are more transparent than others. I tend to wear my feelings on my sleeve, while my wife is much more private. Making people feel comfortable enough to open up and share their feelings is a key element of people power. When there is high trust and deep rapport, transparency and openness is facilitated. That’s why trust is the foundation of all relationships. Without it, people withdraw, hold back and pull away. 

Because most of us are self-centered and think about ourselves most of the time, we listen not with the intent to understand or acquire empathy, but with the intent to talk or reply. That diminishes the effectiveness of listening. Occasionally, when in a group conversation, sit back and observe. You will notice that most participants are so busy talking about themselves as they relate to the subject that very little empathy is being exchanged. Our need to feel understood is so powerful that it motivates us to talk, mostly about ourselves. It may make us feel better, but it does nothing for our people power.

If we want to deepen our ability to listen, we must also become skilled at its complement, the ability to ask good questions. After good listening skills, there is no other tool more important to a salesperson, leader or parent than the ability to inquire, dig deeper and extract meaning from others. 

Superficial conversations add no depth to our understanding. That’s where good questions come in. How can you sell someone something if you don’t know the customer’s reasons for buying? How can you empower your constituents if you are always telling and directing? How will you get your children to listen if you are always talking at them rather than listening to them?

Asking good questions is hard. It requires us to shift our focus from ourselves to others. We have to be willing to let go of a several ego needs: to be the “answer person,” which makes us feel that we matter and are smart; to control the situation, which is a strong psychological force; and to be right, which closes our minds and makes us blind to alternatives and better choices.

When we move beyond our need to talk, inquiring with good questions can substantially increase our people power. The more I learn about the power of good questions, the more amazed I am that we don’t use this tool more often. The following are benefits of meaningful inquiry.

Increases knowledge: You can’t learn anything through an open mouth. Why do we spend most of our youth in school? Because “knowledge is power,” according to Francis Bacon. 

I believe its power lies in alternatives and choices. The more alternatives we have, the more choices we can make. Choice gives us control and freedom. If we know of only one way to do something, our choices are limited. Knowledge opens the mind, expands our alternatives and helps us discover more effective ways of doing, thinking and seeing. 

This edition of Floor Focus includes the publication of its research of the flooring industry. What makes the information so important is that it has been deepened and expanded by the questions that were asked: the better the questions, the better the knowledge; the clearer the choices, the greater the alternatives; the better the decisions, the more optimal the results. Here’s a question you can ask yourself: what can I learn from the contents of this magazine that will help me improve my life or the profitability and productivity of my business? 

Initiates creativity and innovation: Inquiring is often the starting point of innovation. Statements can cause people to make judgments, whereas questions help people tap into the part of the brain that is creative. Seeing a problem from someone else’s perspective opens the mind to creativity and problem solving. That’s why valuing diversity is so important. If we all see things from the same perspective, only one of us is necessary. 

Prevents you from talking too much: You can’t learn anything if you are doing all the talking. In selling, my rule of thumb is never talk longer than 30 seconds without asking a question. It’s a good rule to follow in most conversations and relationships. Most of us want to be liked and to be interesting. The paradox is, if you want to be interesting, you have to first be interested. Being interested and curious about others intensifies people power. People like people who are interested in them. 

Increases your caring: It takes work to stay focused on others without straying back to ourselves. Listening and querying others takes effort and investment. The law of investment says: what you invest in, you value. That’s why my son takes care of his car better than I do mine. He worked hard to earn the money for it. It takes effort to maintain it, so he cares for it. 

As we give, serve and invest in others, our hearts open and our caring expands. When others see that we care, our people power expands. The fact is, love is a verb.

Builds trust and rapport: The more the other person feels understood, the more open to your influence they will be. Your questions will clear up their fuzzy thinking and understanding. The more questions you ask, the more trust you will build, and the more influential you will become.

Elicits others’ needs, wants, values and motives: People act and buy for their reasons, not ours. We cannot assume to know why they do what they do. You already know what assuming does. We must ask, dig down and discover what is important to them. How can you possibly help anyone make the right decision without that understanding? How can you “customer-ize” your solution without using what you learned to position it and sell it?

Maintains engagement: Listening is hard because our minds move faster than our mouths. When others are speaking, our minds wander: we think of our replies, we finish others’ sentences, we notice what they are wearing or the flaws in their skin. While we are talking, the other person is doing the same. As a teacher, I notice that even when I am sharing powerful information with my students, they are often unengaged, thinking of other things. To re-engage them, I ask them a question. Suddenly, they are engaged again.

Is transforming and empowering: Active inquiry encourages others to think. Asking questions makes others feel confident in their abilities, because they are thinking for themselves. Empowering questions that have heart and meaning can have a transformative effect. The transformative impact comes not from knowing what to tell people but from knowing what to ask and creating an open-ended, vibrant space within which to explore. Well-crafted questions elicit new awareness and feelings of empowerment. 

But beware, not just any questions will do. Questions can be energizing or they can be draining. If your questions build self-esteem and self-confidence, cause the others to feel creative and are solution-oriented— What do you think? What can we do to improve?—they are probably empowering. There are no wrong answers to empowering questions. They evoke answers authentic to those who answer them. 

If your questions make others feel defensive or reactive, are problem-oriented and draining—Why did you do that? What were you thinking? Who said you could do that?—they are probably disempowering. Such questions, though they get to the heart of the matter, generate resistance and defensiveness. They destroy trust.

Creates ownership: The power of questions is that they lead the listener to their own conclusions. The answer comes from within, so they own it. When we give people answers, they may understand them intellectually, but they still need to clarify and internalize them for themselves. They are internalized much faster when they originate within. What’s the best way to get others to accept a new idea? Make them think it was theirs! 

If we want to “rejoice in life for its own sake,” we must live life with the power to control ourselves and gain the assistance of others. That comes by gaining knowledge and wisdom. As the nursery rhyme says, “A wise old owl sat on an oak. The more he saw the less he spoke. The less he spoke the more he heard. Why aren’t we like that wise old bird?” 

Copyright 2016 Floor Focus 

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