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Asking the Next Question

As consultants we are often asked to help our clients work through difficult decisions. In many cases, these are families who have several individuals involved in the decision-making process, and each of them has their own unique perspectives, priorities and preferences for the outcome. As we try to help them through the process, we can feel like we are talking in circles and not getting to the real problem.
Perhaps our challenge is that we are trying to use our carefully generated facts and strategies to convince them of the logical solution, while they privately withhold their true concerns. This type of impasse is hard to break and requires a change in approach. Instead of making statements, we need to be asking questions, and sometimes asking the right question is the solution to the entire conundrum. In fact, psychiatrists tell us that the problem the person brings them is never the real problem. The real problem is “three questions deep…” and the true art of the psychiatric profession is, “which three questions?”

When there is a stalemate in the discussions, or simply a person who can’t seem to make a decision, we can break the logjam in their thinking by asking questions instead of repeating the same statements over and over again using slightly different wording. Our questions must not be blunt and direct, but rather start with very general, open-ended questions and get more and more specific as we carefully and patiently allow them to encounter new perspectives and hear other viewpoints. This is the process of “funneling” our questions whereby we start at the top of the funnel with open-ended questions, and as we work down through the funnel, we get more and more specific, feeding off their answers and guiding them to logical conclusions.

Here’s an example. Consider a situation where you are trying to help a group decide on a major purchase. They know that the analysis proves they can afford it, and that the ROI fits their criteria, but there are differences in opinion as to whether it is the right time to make that decision. Here’s a list of questions that can be asked of each person in the group to help them understand each other’s perspectives and perhaps arrive at a joint decision. We would ask each question in this general order, of each person in the room, so that each provides their perspective before moving to the next question:
  1. In one or two sentences, summarize your perspectives on this decision.
  2. Help me understand why this perspective is important to you. (Helps us understand if there are any emotional reasons for their hesitation.)
  3. What are the advantages of making this decision now?
  4. What are the barriers to making this decision now?
  5. If those barriers were removed or adequately addressed, could you make that decision today? (Reveals additional underlying reasons that might not have been expressed before now.)
  6. If you still want to delay, what will you be thinking about during the interim? Help us understand what is not yet resolved in your mind that prevents us from making this decision today? (Helps to reveal what their reluctance could actually be about)
  7. What do you really want? (This question gets to the bottom of any unspoken, deep-seated reasons for delaying or disagreeing. We only need to ask this question if we don’t have a solution by this point.)
  8. What do you think a logical, adult, business-like decision would be at this point? (This question takes them out of any emotional perspectives they are fighting, if that is an issue, and often forces them to think in a more concise, analytical, professional manner.)
At any point in these questions, you may reach a clear conclusion and move on. You may also glean crucial, new information that must be addressed before making this decision.
Ask questions that naturally arise from the answers given because this allows everyone to gain a better understanding of each person’s perspectives. Quite often, “What do you really want?” is the most powerful question in all of these suggestions. Don’t go there too soon in the discussion.
Remember an old saying that is quite true, “A man convinced against his will, is of the same opinion still…” If we force decisions on someone, they are likely to resist in other areas, or even sabotage the outcome.
What are some of the most powerful questions you use when the decision-making process reaches an impasse?
Don Tyler
Tyler & Associates
These opinions and commentary are Don Tyler’s own. They are not necessarily those of ASAC or its members.
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