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Empowering Questions—An Influence Strategy

Have you ever felt this way: “But how can I influence their opinions...I’ve tried everything and making a business case didn’t do it!”? Intensive research by Aperian Global has consistently affirmed that the most mission critical skill any leader has on the global stage is influence. Research from Deloitte and other research institutes remind us that influence is the competency that enables leaders to be successful in highly complex settings. And, in all probability, your individual everyday experience in organizational life is that you rely on forms of influence to get things done—you have to get others working alongside you to realize the vision.

Legendary influence researcher Gary Yukl, PhD, reminds us that relying on position power, expertise and business logic leads to very limited success. It is building and strengthening relationships and using appropriate emotional levers that have the greatest impact when influencing action. Recently an executive was sharing just how baffled he was that even though he had the expertise, evidence, and business cases for his proposal, his peers were unmoved and disenchanted with his idea. And when asked about the quality of his relationships with his peers, he said, “we can hardly stand to be in the same room together.”

Interactions as Building Blocks

Most of the time, influence, like leadership power, is developed through a host of microinteractions. We build our relationships through daily conversations and interactions as we work through real challenges and problems. Imagine the manager who makes it a point to stop by her four peers work areas to touch base and see how things are going and who asks a question or two to gain understanding. Depending on the quality of the question and the nature of the question, she could be building a relationship that leads to greater influence or could be innocently asking questions that erode the potential of a relationship.

Does your Question Erode or Invite?

When you are seeking to connect and explore with others—what kinds of questions do you use?

Questions that erode relationships:

Why are we behind schedule?
Who isn’t keeping up?
What’s the problem with this project?
Whose idea was that?
Why didn’t you know better than that?
Why is this a failure?
Why can’t you get this right?
Don’t you agree (or disagree, depending on the perspective of the asker)?
Is this all?
Have you considered the consequences?
May I be frank?
You’re not going to do that are you?
"Why?" questions of any sort carry a sting. Rephrase into a how or what question. Yes/No, either/or questions are pretty useless unless you are in a courtroom.

Questions that invite clarification, exploration, discovery which carry a message of respect and regard for the receiver of the question which builds relationship include:

From your perspective, what needs to be done?
What is right for our goals or objectives?
How do you feel about our progress so far?
What do you feel we can do better?
What are you most pleased with related to this project?
What are you most displeased with related to this project?
How would you describe how you want this project to go?
What are the benefits to the stakeholders—customers, employees, company, team, and you—if we go about implementing this project as you describe?
What will be easiest and hardest to accomplish on this project?
What key things need to happen to achieve your/our objective?
What is a viable alternative?
What will you commit to do by when?
Tell me more about _______.
What possibilities come to mind about _______?
What is stopping us from implementing the plan?
What is particularly interesting to you about this idea?
What kind of solutions to you see if we change our assumptions about _______?
What patterns do we need to pay attention to?
What have we learned from our previous effort to _______ that we can use now?
How can we stay on track?
What makes this idea, option, consideration unique and valuable to our stakeholders?
What ways can we work together to constructive solve this problem?
How can we work at a solution that meets our collective needs?
What do you see as the next step to enable us to reach our goal?
What can I do to help you achieve success?

Mind the Alternatives

It seems simple enough, yet to really learn to change, to switch our point of view, we have to have a thorough understanding of our automatic habits of mind. Self-discovery means that we might learn that our style is to ask critical questions out of habit, which disempower the other person. Once we have discovered some of the outcomes of our behavior, we need to look at alternative paths and how those alternatives impact our relationships. And now that we have a good understanding of our frame of mind, the consequences of our patterns, and a clearer sense of what we want it to be, we need a development strategy to get to the place where we more naturally think about alternative responses such as the questions we ask when working with others.

At Matrix Insights, each learner has a personalized plan to get from current levels of effectiveness to higher forms of efficacy as a learner and leader. Our software helps you understand what it takes to learn how to ask empowering questions and how to become a perpetual learner—a requirement for today’s leader.


To explore this matter of questions, consider the following:

Leeds, D. (1987). Smart Questions. New York: Berkley Books.

Leeds, D. (2000). The 7 Powers of Questions. New York: Penguin.

Marquardt, M. (2005) Leading with Questions. San Francisco: Jossey Bass Publishers

Standfield, R, editor. (2000). The Art of Focused Conversation. Toronto: New Society Publishers.