Starting with the end in mind: do you seek to influence or control? It is indeed a fine line to walk.
I had an interesting conversation with a client, let’s call him Joe. At the time, Joe was a mid-thirties executive producer desperate to help his sister make healthier decisions.
I asked him to tell me more and heard several familiar phrases and experiences: “I’ve tried suggesting other ideas, challenged her thinking and tried asking her questions – nothing works, she just doesn’t listen to reason!”
Given Joe’s personality, I chose a direct approach: “Joe, are you seeking to influence or control your sister’s decisions?” After a long pause, he replied: “I want to influence her decisions”.
My question provokes self-reflection, why is this important? Self-awareness is a critical element that opens the door for change.
Why is this a common story with friends and family? Can something, anything, change the narrative?
I probed a little further by exploring whether a pattern-break was tried using the “can I ask you a question?” technique. This simple trick is an effective way to break rapport and allow for a reframe. It jolts the person (and their pattern) off the current path thereby allowing the introduction of something new.
To illustrate – think of a conversation you had where the other person sounded like a dog with a bone and didn’t let go of a belief, opinion or pet peeve. This is an ideal time to break rapport and reframe allowing the conversation to move on.
Joe spoke to me a couple of days later telling me he tried the technique and said with amazement: “It worked!” He went on to tell me that eventually she caught onto his strategy and started resuming her old ways.
No real surprise there! I proceeded to ask him: “are your questions open or leading? For example, are you asking things more along the lines of – Have you considered XYZ approaches or, how did you identify and evaluate your options?”
The first question is a closed question, a simple YES or NO answer that doesn’t tax the brain much. The second question requires self-reflection, recalling sounds, sights or feelings often before words emerge. Connections inevitably occur during this reflective process because this style of question doesn’t hold judgment. We are not questioning their opinions, decisions or considerations – we are simply asking questions that seek to generate an understanding (for both of us).
Influencing through open questions
We continued exploring Joe’s approach and I asked if his questions incorporated any of his own suggestions or ideas (known as leading questions)? They did. Herein lies a powerful lesson. Asking an open and unbiased question does a couple of things, it:
- Allows the person a safe place to explore his or her own thinking, ideas, options and consequences.
- Respects that our own view of the world is not a common view for others and therefore our solution is not necessarily appropriate to their circumstance. In fact our solutions could be detrimental (even if we find success with them in our own lives).
- Recognizes that decision ownership is a critical component for accountability to one’s own life, there is no one to blame if things go sideways.
Joe’s eyes lit up realizing the immense potential for open questions.
The most influential individuals are the ones that can open up thinking with thought provoking questions without a hint of agenda or judgment. So adopting an approach that suggests sleight of mouth (i.e.: an underlying agenda) is a sure-fire way to lose credibility and the ability to influence. After all, who likes to be manipulated however it is dressed up?
How much more influential could you become, at work and home, if you communicated without agenda or judgment?
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