Questions…From A Born Salesman

Today, I’’d like to get back to the question of questioning. A few weeks ago, in Message #160, we talked about the effect of asking questions in the world of business. My argument, in a nutshell, was this: When you ask a question, you cede power, so be very careful whom you question. Trusted mentors, yes. Untested colleagues, no. My comments stimulated a small flurry of responses from ETR readers, all positive except one.

AS had this to say: “In reply to your e-mail message dealing with “questions.” A very interesting piece. But I believe asking questions is not about determining power but obtaining it. You see, questions are a tool to gain knowledge. If you ask the questions creatively, you can obtain information that can give you the edge. Information that may be useful. “The art of asking questions can be like a good salesman learning what his customer wants. People love to talk and sometimes too much. Questions don’t have to sound like questions.

A good probing technique is to make someone feel comfortable [so] the questioning seems like conversation. People love to feel important [by] offering their experiences and knowledge to others. The shrewd questioner knows this. This is the individual with power. “I don’t think this relates to a sexual gender. A shrewd woman uses her feminine abilities to make males comfortable [enough] to answer many questions. Who has the power in this situation? “I never feel submissive in asking questions. I even ask stupid ones. I have always found myself to learn so much from others who feel important answering even these “stupid” questions. I sometimes laugh [to] myself [at] how I really have the edge in the conversation. The power never leaves me. It’s something you have or you don’t. ”

As to your problem with maps and directions. I have always viewed myself [as having] a great sense of direction. But that doesn’t ever stop me from asking. I find myself learning something new from the one giving the directions. A quicker way to save time. A good restaurant to have a meal. An event going on in a new location. Or that I have may a big blunder and have lost time traveling. It’s better to lose 10 miles than 30 miles. So, as you see, it can be a positive experience. As I return to the car and my significant other hears about the great gourmet meal she [is] going to [enjoy], I’m certainly the one looking very powerful.” Okay. Good stuff, AS.

Let me start by summarizing what I think are your main points:

1. You can gain knowledge by asking questions – and knowledge is power.

2. Some kinds of questions don’t result in a transfer of power.

3. It is possible to gain power by asking questions.

4. Questioning opens up new worlds of discovery to you.

I commend you for your insights. I agree – completely – with three of your four points. But I don’t see the contradiction you do. In fact, my view on this subject feels even “righter” after hearing your good comments. Yes, there are questions that don’’t cede power. And such questions do enrich your life. For example: “How are you?” “How are the kids?” “What did you think of that ball game, last night?”

However, in Message #160, when I confessed to being a “questionophobic,” I meant to make it clear that I was talking about a certain kind of question – where you ask for advice or direction. Let’s call this type of questioning “malevolent.” And let’s call the other type (which doesn’t cede power) “benign,” or “endearing.” Benign questions flatter the person being questioned and endear the questioner.

And that brings us to the one point AS made that I can’t agree with: that it is possible to gain power by asking questions. When AS, who is a salesman, uses questions to flatter or endear himself to his prospect) he is doing so to get what he wants – which is to get close to his prospect. As I will show you some time in the future, intimacy is a very important selling technique. But intimacy is not power. And when a salesman asks for advice or direction, he gives up power, whether he recognizes it or not. This may suit his ultimate objective, but he has done so at the expense of power.

A salesman should ask advice-type questions when he thinks his prospect feels intimidated and he doesn’t want him to feel that way. By asking for advice, he gives his prospect the power he needs to feel comfortable making the purchase. The salesman’s purpose is not to achieve dominance over the prospect but to evoke a specific reaction – a sale. Being a good salesman, he understands that for his prospect to feel comfortable buying from him (both at that time and in the future), he must feel “in control.” Now, it may be true that the salesman engineers what happens by asking the question. But once the question is asked, the power is transferred. What is done cannot be undone.

If the salesman asks enough malevolent questions, the prospect will have gained all the power. That may be good for sales – but it is, nevertheless, an exchange of power. Do you see the difference? I hope this doesn’t seem like I’m splitting hairs. This is actually quite important. But we don’t need to go into it any further today. I just wanted to show you how power is always ceded when you ask for advice. The lesson is that in business it is sometimes advantageous to take power, sometimes beneficial to yield it.

It is a mistake to equate success with the accumulation of power. A big mistake. So ask for advice only when you are prepared (or determined) to give up some power. And that is usually when you realize that, in the other person’s mind, you have too much power – so much power that he is not able to do something you want him to do.

[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]