Alexa, Siri, Google, and all programs that answer questions, have mechanisms that determine the answers. If you’re like me, you largely assume they are accurate, without us knowing the reference material or checking further. We actually do this in our daily lives – pose questions to friends, colleagues, and clients, about stuff we’re curious about, and receive responses we don’t check for accuracy or congruence.
Have you ever wondered what a question actually is? Conventionally, questions are posed to elicit a response, to gather data from a Responder, like “How many children do you have?” or “Why are you doing that?” Parents and spouses sometimes use questions to point out insufficiencies or annoyances, as in “Didn’t you notice the dishes haven’t been done?”
Sometimes we use them rhetorically to demand fairness in the world, like in “Why is this happening to me??” Sometimes questions are posed to elicit a specific response so the Asker can cause the Responder to admit something, like “Don’t you think there are better ways to do that?” Sometimes questions are deemed ‘closed’, like in, “What time is dinner?” Sometimes they’re ‘open’, like in, “What do you want to eat?”
But there is a unifying feature to all conventional questions: questions are biased by the needs of the Asker. More specifically questions are:
- posed according to the needs, curiosity, goals, assumptions, and intent of the Asker;
- using words that limit responses to narrow interpretation;
- interpreted uniquely, according to a Responder’s historic, unconscious, world views and mental models;
- potentially ignore more important information.
Of course, most of the time, conventional questions work just fine. How else could we find out how many acres there are at Machu Picchu, or which movie our spouse wants to see?
But I believe we are underutilizing questions. I believe it’s possible for questions to serve a higher purpose – to collect accurate data, of course, but also to help others discover their own answers and path to decision making and change. What if it were possible to use questions to actually lead people through their unconscious discovery process to uncover their own best answers – without any bias from the Asker?
WHAT QUESTIONS DO
There’s a reason questions don’t necessarily unearth accurate data. Using words uniquely chosen to represent the needs of the Asker, standard questions extract a restricted subset of data from the myriad of available responses stored in a Responder’s brain. Indeed, questions impose limits that often miss the mark, being misunderstood or interpreted badly. There are several reasons for this.
- Information: because information is elicited by the needs or curiosity – the bias – of the Asker, real answers may not be captured. The wording, the request, the topic, the intent, the underlying assumptions, and/or the vocabulary may offend, confuse, or annoy causing partial or inaccurate responses.
- Listening: words and meaning are merely our brain’s interpretations of sound waves that enter through historic unique neural pathways, guaranteeing we assign meaning according to our unconscious biases and history. Obviously, we might miss the intent of the question entirely. I wrote an entire book on this (What? Did you really say what I think I heard?). Given these natural biases, it’s likely that what we think we’ve heard is some degree of the Asker’s intent. Read my article on this: We don’t know how to hear each other.
- Biased question formulation: Askers use words that they assume will elicit good data for a specific goal and outcome, but may not elicit the best, accurate, or truthful, responses. Sadly, it’s possible that higher quality answers could have been retrieved with a different wording or intent.
- Restriction: questions restrict answers to the boundaries of the question. We cannot uncover data we never asked for, even if it’s available. We cannot elicit accurate data if the question is heard differently than intended.
Are you getting the point here? Questions have so many in-built biases, so many unknowns in a Responder’s brain, that it’s a miracle people communicate at all. And the Responder? Well, a Responder is at the mercy of the question and their own unconscious brain circuitry.
This is especially disturbing in coaching, healthcare, and leadership situations. Well-meaning professionals believe they’ll instigate a truth from a Responder, exposed by the ‘right’ question; or that the questions will unearth the ‘right’ answer’. Every coach and leader I’ve met deeply believes in their own knack – ‘intuition’ – for posing the ‘right’ question because they have a history of similar situations.
Yet we all have examples where these assumptions have proven false. Sometimes the Influencer doesn’t trust the Other to have the ‘right’ opinions or ideas; sometimes they pose questions that elicit incorrect data, or worded in a way that unwittingly creates resistance. And sadly, when Responders share answers that prove unhelpful or inaccurate, Influencers blame them for being non-compliant. And worse, patients end up keeping bad habits, clients end up not making needed changes, buyers end up not getting what they need.
A NEW FORM OF QUESTION
As someone who has thought deeply, and written, about the physiology of change and the neurology of decision making for decades, I began pondering this conundrum in the 1980s. I wondered if questions could be posed with no bias, no ego, no personal needs for a particular solution – only the trust that Others had their own answers and merely had to discover them.
What if healthcare professionals asked questions that triggered patients to positive, immediate habit change, or coaches knew the exact questions that enabled new habit formation and behavior generation? What if scientists and consultants could elicit the most accurate information? And imagine if it were possible for questions to help advertisers actually inspire action and sellers to generate Buyer Readiness.
What if a question could be worded in a specific way to act as a GPS to lead a Responder through a sequence in their brain to make it possible to discover the full set of criteria to make a decision from and a permanent change without resistance?
I’m going to get a bit wonky here, so hang with me because what I discovered is not obvious. I began studying neuroscience and learned it’s possible to sequence the elements in the brain that cause personal, systemic change. I discovered that it’s possible to use specifically formulated questions to lead Others through to the appropriate brain circuitry to discover specific memories, beliefs, goals, and criteria, to find their own answers and make any needed changes congruent with who they are.
The hardest bit is to change the mindset of the questioner. To achieve more consistent, helpful, and permanent results, Askers must begin by changing their criteria from having answers to being facilitators, to trust that the Other has their own answers stored in their unconscious. In other words, Askers would only lead Others to where their answers might be stored, and not assume they possessed the solutions.
I actually thought about this for 10 years as I spent countless hours trying to figure out how words could uncover exactly where in the brain needed responses reside. I eventually came up with a new form of question I labeled a Facilitative Question. With a goal of helping Others consciously enter their unconscious brains, they use
- specific words, in a specific order to go to the most appropriate memory channel to enable discovery without resistance;
- time, and short/long term memory storage;
- no bias from an Asker’s curiosity but a foundation of systems;
- a very specific scope of facilitating systemic brain change and avoiding elements that might spark defense or resistance.
Facilitative Questions lead Responders through specific neural circuitry uncover and potentially reorganize their own criteria, beliefs, and mental models their own unique answers – great for permanent behavior change. With these questions, prospective buyers can be led through change and buying stages; coaching clients can discover their own path to resistance-free change; doctors can elicit behavior change in patients rather than push to try to cause change; and advertisers can trigger interactive responses to normally one-sided push messages.
Here is a simple example:
- How would you know if it were time to reconsider your hairstyle?
This Facilitative Question (FQ) uses specific words in a specific order to lead Responders to engage the exact circuits that store the relevant information and best criteria to use for permanent change. It begins by expanding the viewing range to the full set of possibilities (i.e. ‘how would you know’), does not challenge the status quo (i.e ‘if it were time’), enables the consideration of possible change without demanding it or threatening the system (i.e. ‘reconsider’), and limits the area of analysis to a bite sized chunk so the brain isn’t overwhelmed (i.e. ‘hairstyle’). And used in the sequence of how decisions get made (my book Dirty Little Secrets discusses the 13 sequenced steps of all change decisions), this leads the Responders brain to action.A conventional question posed to cover the same area might be:
- Why do you wear your hair like that?
This conventional question challenges the Responder and attempts to elicit data for the Asker’s use, causing a defensive response (a reply would start with ‘Because’) and keeping the person in a very small, idiosyncratic, and personal response range which may end up not being about hair at all, but might send the person back to a fight with their mother 30 years prior, or a defense against their boss, or whatever. And while the Asker is most likely attempting to elicit a response, they are out of control. FQs actually define the parameters and give Askers real control.
These examples are merely single FQs; without the full sequence they have limited use and not part of the process of enabling change. For most change it’s necessary to formulate a sequenced set of FQs that lead a Responder from their initial discovery of change criteria through their own unique steps of congruent change.
Here’s a few industries that could benefit from FQs.
- Healthcare: Intake forms that create an interactive doc/patient experience from the start: What would you need to see from us to know we’re on your team and ready to serve you? [This FQ automatically creates a WE space between patient and provider.] Doctors could lead people to how they’d create new habits for health: What has stopped you from being able to exercise regularly until now? What would you need to know or believe differently to be able to add regular walking to your weekly schedule?
- Advertising, for an ad for a Porsche, for example: How would you know when it was time to buy yourself a luxury car? [This FQ makes the ad interactive and gives a reader time to reflect on personal change.]
- Sales: What has stopped you until now from resolving your issue using your own resources? [This FQ enables potential buyers to look at how they’ve gone about solving a problem on their own – necessary before realizing they can’t fix the problem themselves and might need to buy something.]
- Coaching: What would you need to see or believe differently to be willing to consider new choices in the places where your habitual choices are more limited? [This FQ gives clients an observer viewpoint, thus circumventing blame, to notice old habits/patterns, and limits viewing to the exact historic behaviors that may not be effective.]
These can be used in advertising and marketing campaigns; healthcare apps that sit on top of Behavior Mod apps and facilitate new habit formation; AI where apps or robots need to understand the route to change and decision making. I’ve been teaching it in sales with my Buying Facilitation® model for 40 years and companies such as DuPont teach how to use them with farmers; Senior Partners at KPMG use it with client consulting; Safelight Auto Glass uses it to compete against other distributors; and Kaiser Permanente uses it to engage seniors needed supplemental insurance, to name a few.
If anyone would like to learn the HOW of formulating Facilitative Questions, I developed a primer in a FQ learning accelerator. Or we can work together to develop or test a new initiative. Given how broadly my own clients have used these questions, I’m eager to work with folks who seek to truly serve their client base.
By enabling Others to discover their own unconscious path we not only help them find their own best answers but act as Servant Leaders to decision making.
- What would you need to know or believe differently to be willing to add a new questioning technique to your already superb questioning skills?
- How would you know that adding a new skill set would be worth the time/effort/cost to make you – and your clients – even more successful?
Should you wish to add the ability to use questions as a way to truly serve others, let me know.
Sharon-Drew Morgen is a breakthrough innovator and original thinker, having developed new paradigms in sales (inventor Buying Facilitation®, listening/communication (What? Did you really say what I think I heard?), change management (The How of Change™), coaching, and leadership. She is the author of several books, including the NYTimes Business Bestseller Selling with Integrity and Dirty Little Secrets: why buyers can’t buy and sellers can’t sell). Sharon-Drew coaches and consults with companies seeking out of the box remedies for congruent, servant-leader-based change in leadership, healthcare, and sales. Her award-winning blog carries original articles with new thinking, weekly. www.sharon-drew.com She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.