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managing books

The power in asking the right questions Add to ...

Power Questions

By Andrew Sobel and Jerold Panas

(John Wiley, 205 pages, $27.95)

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“Is this the best you can do?”

“If the circumstances were turned around, how would you want to be treated?”

“Do you mind if we start over again?”

“What do you think?”

Each of these is a powerful question that can turn a tepid conversation into a revealing encounter, as demonstrated by consultants Andrew Sobel and Jerold Panas in their engaging new book, Power Questions.

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“Good questions are often far more powerful than answers,” they argue. “Good questions challenge your thinking. They reframe and redefine the problem. They throw cold water on our most dearly-held assumptions, and force us out of our traditional thinking. They motivate us to learn and discover more. They remind us of what is most important in our lives.”

Consider the phrase, “Is this the best you can do?” It was a question Apple co-founder Steve Jobs routinely used with the designers on his staff, urging them to push harder to make their latest innovation more alluring to customers.

It was also a technique of former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger. One time he asked his special assistant, Winston Lord, for a foreign policy report. Knowing his boss expected high-quality work, Mr. Lord turned in a draft he felt was top-notch. The next day, Mr. Kissinger called him in and asked, “Is this the best you can do?” Mr. Lord replied, “Henry, I thought so, but I’ll try again.”

He did, and met the same question, so wrote another draft, and yet another, each time facing the same question when he handed it in. Finally Mr. Lord said, “Henry, I have beaten my brains out – this is the ninth draft. I know it’s the best I can do: I can’t possibly improve one more word.” Mr. Kissinger looked at him and declared, “In that case, now I’ll read it.”

Another powerful question comes from the story of John Kirkham, the owner of a small manufacturing plant, who discovered his chief financial officer was depositing the company’s cheques to his personal bank account. By the time Mr. Kirkham became aware of it, $100,000 was gone.

The CFO was one of his closest friends and confidants, but when Mr. Kirkham confronted him the man insisted no money was taken. He dodged questions until Mr. Kirkham said, “I want a yes or no: Did you steal the money?” After several minutes of silence, the CFO broke down and confessed. A direct, demanding question can be a good move when open-ended queries go nowhere.

But an even better question emerges from this story. After his CFO confessed, Mr. Kirkham was unsure about what to do. Should he report the man to authorities? Should he give his friend 24 hours to resign? Should he fire him? Mr. Kirkham turned for advice to one of the authors of this book, and in return received a question: “If the circumstances were turned around, how would you want to be treated?”

Mr. Kirkham realized that he if were in this situation, he would he ask for forgiveness and another chance. That’s what happened: Forgiveness was extended, with the proviso the money was paid back in 120 days. Years later, Mr. Kirkham has found hisCFO more dedicated than ever, and never dishonest again.

Another of the book’s anecdotes stems from the time one of the authors met with a wealthy alumnus to ask for a donation to their university’s engineering department. The potential donor was furious that the request came at the start of their conversation, without any building of rapport or questions about what he would prefer to support. The author said, “Do you mind if we start over again?” and left the room. He returned 20 minutes later to begin properly; after a good discussion, he found that although the alumnus was an engineer he had wanted to be an actor and preferred to support the theatre program.

One of the most powerful questions consists of just four words. It’s especially helpful if you have a tendency to be domineering in conversations, doing all the talking with subordinates, telling them your priorities and what you want to do. The authors suggest you instead try asking them, “What do you think?”

Power Questions is carved into short chapters with stories that show the value of the 44 prime questions the authors offer, as well as explanations of when to use them and supplementary queries. (It also has 293 questions in the final, appendix-like chapter.) I found the stories a bit disconcerting because they were generally written in the first person and it was unclear which of the two authors was telling the tale, but aside from that the book is first-rate and very helpful.

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Postscript

In The Reinventors (Portfolio, 246 pages, $28.50), San Francisco-based motivational speaker Jason Jennings shows how extraordinary companies he followed achieve their success through continuous change.

Workplace consultant Kate Ward shares insights about various personality types in Personality Style at Work (McGraw-Hill, 241 pages, $29.95).

Beverly Schwartz, vice-president of marketing at Ashoka, a global association of social entrepreneurs, explains how to spread social innovation around the world in Rippling

(Jossey-Bass, 269 pages, $33.95).

Special to The Globe and Mail

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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