At one time or another, many of us will have participated in a meeting with a prospective new client, supplier or business partner where, despite our best efforts, the conversation doesn’t flow. We never quite succeed in gaining the insights we need to qualify the other party in or out of consideration. In this blog, we’ll look at some of the strategies that can trip us up and how sometimes, paying attention to the little things can yield big results. The inspiration for it is an offsite coaching programme I attended some years ago.
It all started simply enough: the facilitator invited one attendee to invest a few minutes to tell us about their business. Her brief wasn’t specific: the delegate could talk about any aspect they chose. After they had finished, the rest of us were tasked with framing one question each to unearth the maximum extra insight about the company.
The difference between asking questions and being genuinely curious
On the day, I recall being relieved that I didn’t have to go first: this privilege came with added pressure. Equally, it afforded the opening questioner a huge potential canvas. They painted onto it a ‘big picture’ question about the founder’s intent and somewhat unexpectedly, received a pretty short answer. The founder had long-since resolved their intent and how to articulate it succinctly.
The next person looked for a new and similarly wide-angle question that they hoped would elicit a panoramic response. Again it was apparent that the question had not engaged the respondent or created any sort of rapport with them (other than a little sympathy for our collective plight as interviewers, perhaps).
This trend continued for a few more questions. The growing sense in the room was that we were gradually accumulating information, yet without creating any great engagement. The energy was flat, we were in a ‘Q&A’ scenario, it felt like hard work. If this had been a new business meeting, it would be getting uncomfortable by now.
As my turn approached, I felt increasingly stuck. All of the questions I might have asked had been used up already and to little effect. Never mind coming up with a great question, I simply needed to come up with one at all.
More out of desperation than strategy, I decided to adopt a more light-hearted approach: in for a penny, in for a pound!
The power of respectful curiosity
I had noticed that when describing their business, the founder had made reference to the company shuttle bus and more specifically, that they had recently moved the bus stop from the bottom of the hill to the top (or vice versa). I began to wonder why had they mentioned it and for the want of anything else, this became the focus of my question: why had they moved the bus stop?
The founder broke into a smile. They felt, as they later explained, that this question had shifted us both onto ‘easier’ territory. Instead of focusing on what we interviewers ‘needed’ to discover, the question instead showed curiosity about what they had already chosen to share with us. The question felt less ‘weighty’, put them at greater ease and acted as an implicit invitation to be more light-hearted back.
Stories are so much richer than answers
They then launched into a story - a form of communication many of us use when we are feeling light-hearted, because as it turned out, encapsulated into that one decision to move the bus stop were all the most deeply held values of their business.
As I recall, the firm had recently decided to change its working hours, in consultation with its employees. This was in everyone’s interests yet had brought unforeseen consequences. The combination of the new closing time and the walk to the shuttle bus stop meant that some people were now missing their commuting travel connections, which in turn was impacting their domestic arrangements for childcare and other aspects of their lives.
This hadn’t immediately come to light because the prevailing sense was that the change in hours was a commercial necessity and after all, the shuttle bus stop was where it had always been.
Yet disrupting, rather than supporting employees’ attempts to manage their whole lives was contrary to every value the business held. It was proud of its inclusive, ‘family’ ethos and the change of hours had unexpectedly clashed with this.
The founder went on to explain how this had come to light, how management had responded and the processes that resulted in a solution being agreed with the bus operator: all rich insights into the values, culture, structures and decision-making protocols of the firm.
The solution sounds simpler than it was in reality: to move the bus stop.
The simpler your question, the better
One question about a seemingly insignificant detail, that the business owner had nonetheless chosen to mention, consciously or otherwise, had prompted them to share insights about many aspects of their business. Even more importantly, it had created a genuine rapport between us in a respectful way and allowed them to choose how much detail to share in answering it.
Filter first for what is relevant to the other party
If there is one insight in this story, it is perhaps that the question was rooted in a detail that the other party had chosen to introduce: a ‘spark’ which clearly had relevance for them, even if this was not obvious to the rest of us. The question simply spotted and showed curiosity about this, without any clear expectation of where it would lead.
Sometimes, such little details are like windows that can open up a world of insight and opportunity to us, provided always that we are paying enough attention to notice them.
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