Questions Will Get You Where Answers Won't

The other day I was talking with someone about a start up idea.  He is a very successful sales person and wanted my view on the concept.  As we moved on with the discussion I realized that there were some strategic holes in his plan which I wanted to point out. What I had not realized, however, is that he had bought into the idea lock, stock, and barrel and only wanted to hear me echo his feelings. The same day my wife was unsuccessfully trying to explain to her friend that unlike what she thought, their common friend's behavior was not affrontary. A few days earlier, I was telling my wife to give up the idea of trying to go to India in November when the chances of getting certain things done on time was practically impossible but it was a completely futile exercise.

You know what I am driving at – situations where you try hard to make someone see reason but feel as if you are banging your head against a wall. I mentioned a few incidents where I was the one banging my head against a wall, but am sure people who know me can point out similar situations where I played the wall.

Now these “not so uncommon” interactions are not limited between friends and family members, they are an integral part of how the human mind works. Maybe it’s something to do with some kind of self-preserving instinct. I don’t know for sure, but what I do know is that we all get caught up with our own ideas so much so that we do not see, or want to see what is obvious to others. The numbers driven corporate world has also had to bear the brunt of executives not seeing through the logic of well prepared advisors and forging ahead bull-headedly with their convictions to the detriment of their organizational goals.
Obviously, when decision makers and stakeholders have precarious  view-points they need to be made aware of the risks. But simply stating your position does not only make failure to get your point across likely, it might also get you into trouble. How one handles such situations makes the difference between success and failure of projects, goals, and relationships.
So, what are we to do?
There is more than one way to skin this cat, so to speak.  Nobody has the definite set of answers.  But here is one thing that works really well for me. I call it the PAQ Method (Pause-Answer-Question).  The central idea is to make the listener realize the consequences of their current approach or thinking. Let them arrive at YOUR conclusions on their own.
PAUSE: When you realize that you have to say something which goes against the grain for the listener, pause to understand how the listener sees the situation and before you state your position plan your communication beginning from his point of view and leading to yours. Develop this attitude of restrained communication. It takes time but you will get there with continued practice.
ANSWER: Make a conscious assessment of the emotional stance of the listener. People don’t see reason when they are emotionally attached to certain ideas. So emotions are where you have to work hardest. Answer this question - How far apart are the two point of views and what is the degree of willingness to change. Plan the effect you wish to seek from the interaction, based on what is possible in the given situation. Clearly define what you seek from the interaction. Remember, you can’t give them the solution until they see the real problem and are ready and eager to listen to you. You would be wasting your breath otherwise.  The real problem is that they have not thought through the idea in question completely as they are bonded emotionally to their position.
QUESTION: Frame your expected effect as a set of questions the answers to which should lead to the point you want to make. Lead them to discovering the consequences of their line of thinking on their own. For example, don’t show why business A will not succeed like Business B did because A and B are fundamentally different. Instead you could ask one or more of the following-
What are the consequences of failure for you? Is the opportunity cost high enough to require careful thinking before moving ahead?
  • That's a great idea wonder then why is there such a high failure rate in that business. I am sure you don't have those issues that is exactly why we should investigate reasons for failure.  What might be some of the challenges that you could face different from your past work?
  • What can be done to minimize risk of failure?
  • Are there any holes in the analogy being banked upon?
  • How can we prepare for the differences between the two business models?
As you talk about the issue remove the word ‘but’, ’should’ and the like from your conversation.  Substitute it with “and”. Essentially you are not going to tell them what they should be doing or how they are wrong, you are only going to provide them with various other options or perspectives. When you take this approach you will notice a remarkable difference in your communication.  Try, experiment, and internalize this process, practice it in imaginary conversations until it becomes your second nature. If you did this you will have a lot more buy-in for your idea, and the change you expect will be practically guaranteed in most situations.  This process of communication takes longer but it gets the job done. More importantly, if saves you from putting your foot in your mouth.