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Questions Will Get You Where Answers Fail

Secrets for getting past other people's bullheadedness

By NICK VAIDYA

The other day I was talking with someone about a start-up idea. He is a successful salesperson and wanted my view on the concept. As we moved on with the discussion I realized there were some strategic holes in his plan that I wanted to point out. What I had not realized, however, is that he had bought into the idea lock, stock and barrel, and only wanted to hear me echo his feelings.

That same day, my daughter was unsuccessfully trying to explain to her friend that unlike what she thought, their common friend’s behavior was not an affront. A few days earlier, I was telling my wife to give up the idea of trying to go to India in November when the chances of getting certain things done on time was practically impossible, but it was a completely futile exercise.

You know what I am driving at – situations where you try hard to make someone see reason but feel as if you are banging your head against a wall. Intensely frustrating as they can be, they are very common. I’m sure many of you can recall having been through a similar situation or two in the recent past. I mentioned a few incidents where I was the one banging my head against a wall, but I am sure people who know me can point out situations where I have played the wall instead.

These “not uncommon” interactions are not limited to friends and family members, they are an integral part of how the human mind works. Maybe it has something to do with our natural instinct for self-preservation. Or maybe our egos, fears and greed get the better part of our intellect. I am not sure about that. What I do know is that we all get caught up in our own ideas so deeply that we do not see – or want to see – what is obvious to others. The numbers-driven corporate world has also had to bear the brunt of executives forging ahead bullheadedly with their convictions to the detriment of their organizational goals, ignoring the logic of well-prepared advisers.

Obviously, when decision makers and stakeholders have precarious viewpoints, they need to be made aware of the risks. But bluntly stating your position not only makes it likely that you will fail to get your point across, it also might land you into trouble. How one handles such situations makes the difference between success and failure of projects, goals, and relationships.

So what are we to do?

There is more than one way to skin this cat, so to speak. Nobody has a definite set of answers. But here is one strategy that works well for me. I call it the PAQ (Pause-Answer-Question) method. The central idea behind this approach is to lead the listeners to see the consequences of their current approach or thinking. Let them arrive at your conclusions on their own.

* PAUSE: When you realize that you have to say something which goes against the grain for the listener, pause to understand how the listener sees the situation and plan your communication beginning from his or her point of view and leading to yours before you state your position. Develop this attitude of restrained communication. It takes time but you will become more effective with continued practice.

* ANSWER: While you frame your thoughts based upon the position of the listener, make a conscious assessment of his or her emotional stance. People don’t see reason when they are emotionally attached to certain ideas. So emotion is where you have to do the real work. Answer the question: What is the degree of awareness and willingness of the listener? Plan the effect you wish to seek from the interaction based on what is possible in the given situation. Clearly define what you seek from the interaction. Remember, you can’t give them the solution until they see the real problem and are ready to listen to you. You would be wasting your breath otherwise. Remember, the real problem is that they have not thought through the idea in question completely as they are bonded emotionally to their position.

* QUESTION: Frame your desired effect as a set of questions the answers to which should lead to the point you want to make. Lead your listeners to discovering the consequences of their line of thinking on their own. For example avoid saying directly why business A will not succeed like Business B because A and B are fundamentally different, which is unlike what the person believed so far. Instead you could ask one or more of the following questions:

a.   How important is it to succeed?

b.   What do you think are the consequences of failure?

c.    Is the opportunity cost high enough to demand careful thinking before moving ahead?

d.   What do you think can be done to minimize the risk of failure?

e.   Are there any holes in the analogy being banked upon?

f.    How is this business different from the one managed before?

g.   How can we prepare for the differences between the two business models?

As you talk about the issue remove the words “but,” “should” and “like” from your conversation. Substitute them with “and.” Essentially you are not going to tell them what they should be doing or how they are wrong, you are only going to provide them with various other options or perspectives, thus helping them really think through the idea.

When you take this approach you will notice a remarkable difference in your communication. Try, experiment, and internalize this process, practice it in imaginary conversations until it becomes your second nature. As you use this method regularly you will have a lot more buy-in for your idea and the change you expect will be practically guaranteed in most situations, unless of course if you were wrong to begin with. This process of communication takes longer but it gets the job done and also saves you from putting your foot in your mouth.

Nick is the Managing Partner of The 8020Strategy Group, the President of the Global Alliance of CEO's, and the Managing Editor of The CEO Entrepreneur Magazine (www.8020ceo.com). For keynote addresses, workshops or consulting engagements, he can be reached at nickvaidya@8020ceo.com or 512 257 7868.