Ask Until You Understand

Once I got called by a company’s HR person asking me if I was available for a project. (There was a time when I got several of these calls a month.)

Before I could say anything, she proceeded to tell me that this was an urgent need and that they were desperate to find someone who could start immediately. (I’d heard that before, only to experience crickets chirping after we hung up the phone.)

But being an optimist and sensing that this might be a good opportunity, I asked her one simple question:

“How many people are you considering for this position?”

Now, in my 20 years in business, I’ve rarely if ever had an HR person do anything other than dodge that question, but the question was out there again before I fully realized I’d asked it.

Her response was simple: “We’re only talking to three people, including you. But we don’t like the other two.”

I paused for a moment, not quite believing my good fortune.

We continued to talk, and knowing this bit of information and the client’s general sense of urgency, I was able to negotiate very favorable terms for me to come on board to help.

How many questions to ask

As anyone who’s read my blog knows, I’m a big fan of asking questions. Not only are they less threatening than statements, but they can generate some powerful/useful answers that can be to the benefit of all concerned.

It’s important, though, to ask enough questions. But how do you know when enough is enough?

My rule is this: You know you’ve asked enough questions when you know you have the real reason or reasons for something. There’s an art to it, for sure, but if your questions haven’t yielded any news you can use (e.g., estimated project budget, why the project is happening now and not a year from now, why they’re talking to you), you haven’t asked enough follow-up questions.

I believe most people in the workplace want to answer good questions, especially ones that make them think. They often aren’t willingly withholding information — it’s just that they either don’t know the information is relevant, or they simply forget to mention it until you remind them.

So ask more questions. You’ll be glad you did.

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