Why Asking Questions Is the Quickest Way to Influence Others

We face situations every day both at work where we’d like to influence people to our way of thinking. From asking someone to join your project, join a new business partnership, or even to sell your company, in all of these situations, you need to gain some kind of influence if you want to get the outcome you’re seeking.

The need to build influence has become even more of a priority as organizations have moved further away from hierarchical management structures to more informal networks. When you can’t just order someone to do something via the power of your title, you need to build influence to gain traction.

If building influence is becoming an essential skill for the modern workplace, then what’s the best way to do it?

Changing points of view

When it comes to building influence, some people default to pummeling others with their superior logic and rational thought. I must admit, I have been guilty of this approach. Turns out, that is not an effective way to build influence.

We can actually learn a lot by watching how the best salespeople operate. They don’t try to convince people with the facts and figures until someone has already been won over. So how do they win people over?

The secret is asking questions.

Ultimately, the best way to get someone to join your way of thinking is to get them to come to those same conclusions on their own. The more you try to tell anyone what to think, the more resistant they will become. The skill is in asking carefully crafted questions in a way that gets someone not to see “your” point of view, but to decide on their own that it’s also “their” point of view as well.

As an old adage puts it: no one likes to be sold, but everyone likes to buy. In other words, by asking questions, you’re not selling someone–you’re giving them the opportunity to buy.

Learning to sell yourself

I was taught this valuable lesson early in my sales career by an experienced sales guy I worked with. I remember he ran me through a scenario where we play-acted a situation where I was buying a car from him.

He started by saying, “Go ahead and ask me about this car.”

“Ok,” I said. “Does it come in blue?”

“Do you want it to come in blue?,” he asked.

“I would,” I replied. “So, does it have a big engine?”

“Is a big engine important to you?” he asked.

“Yeah, it is,” I told him.

The conversation continued on like this until he had made his point clear: I was basically choosing the exact kind of car I wanted without any real prompting from him. I was selling myself because I was coming to my own decisions.

You can use that same dynamic when it comes to the workplace. If you’re talking to your co-worker Bob, for example, and you’re trying to decide on which project to work on together, you can start by asking him: “Bob, which of these projects should we do first?” When he gives you an answer, you can then follow up with another question: “Why did you choose that one?”

In the end, you both might come to the same conclusion to work on a particular project, which also just happened to be the project you wanted to work on from the start.

Don’t cross the line

The challenge in building influence through questions is that you can find yourself walking the line of manipulating someone–which can turn someone off in a hot second.

All you need to do is think of the last time you dealt with a snarky salesperson who kept asking you questions even after you came to your decision. In that case, it was clear that he didn’t like the conclusion you came to and kept prodding to push you towards a different path.

If you want to build influence, you need to be willing to let someone come to a different decision than you might have wanted them to. Otherwise, you will come across as insincere and clearly manipulative and you can turn people completely off.

It can pay to be open to any new ideas someone comes up with because of the questions you have been asking.

This also relates to something I have written about before, which is as a leader, sometimes you have to choose to let people go in a different direction when it’s not something critical enough to actually sink the ship.

A trusting influence

The lesson learned is that when it comes to building influence, don’t default to fact, figures, or playing the “boss card.” Rather, rely on carefully chosen questions to help someone see the world differently and from a different perspective. And if you can do that well, and not cross the line by overly manipulating them, you may just create a true believer out of it.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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