One might be tempted to say that Dale Carnegie had it right some 80+ years ago in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People that asking questions and then listening to the answers is one way to do so. However, he was simply channeling his inner Socrates who developed the technique in ancient Greece almost 2400 years ago. Whether you employ the Carnegie method or the Socratic method, asking questions is a key practice that every compliance professional should incorporate into their business skill set.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, entitled “The Surprising Power of Questions, authors Alison Wood Brooks and Leslie K. John posited that by asking questions you can go far beyond the simple exchange of information. They see the simple act of asking questions as a “powerful tool for unlocking value in companies: it spurs learning and the exchange of ideas, it fuels innovation and better performance, it builds trust among team members. And it can mitigate business risk by uncovering unforeseen pitfalls and hazards.” They provide several specific tactics a compliance professional can incorporate into their everyday contact which will further these goals.

Favor follow up questions

The authors believe that “follow-up questions seem to have special power. They signal to your conversation partner that you are listening, care, and want to know more. People interacting with a partner who asks lots of follow-up questions tend to feel respected and heard. An unexpected benefit of follow-up questions is that they don’t require much thought or preparation—indeed, they seem to come naturally to interlocutors.” Follow up questions can be a part of your natural conversation and can work to establish a more encompassing relationship with others. 

Open ended questions

These types of questions, if used properly, can be extraordinarily powerful and even, as the authors note, can be “wellsprings of innovation—which is often the result of finding the hidden, unexpected answer that no one has thought of before.” Moreover, their opposite, the closed-ended question, can introduce bias and manipulation into the conversation and perhaps even the relationship. While opened questions may not be appropriate in focused situations such as negotiations, for the compliance professional they can be very useful to build trust and draw out information.

Get the sequence right

Depending on what you are trying to accomplish the sequence of questions may inform want you to ask. Interestingly the authors found that the best approach in tense encounters is to ask tough questions first, rather than easy ones building up to the tough ones. They noted, by asking tough questions initially, it “can make your conversational partner more willing to open up.” The authors found that people are more willing to reveal sensitive information when questions are asked in a decreasing order of intrusiveness. When a question asker begins with a highly sensitive question – such as ““Have you ever had a fantasy of doing something terrible to someone?” – subsequent questions, such as “Have you ever called in sick to work when you were perfectly healthy?” feel, by comparison, less intrusive, and thus we tend to be more forthcoming.”

However, if you want to build a relationship, “the opposite approach—opening with less sensitive questions and escalating slowly—seems to be most effective.” Moreover, the order you ask questions can influence the answers as research has demonstrated that answers can be correlated from the sequence of questions. For the compliance practitioner you will most probably be desirous of building a relationship so the less sensitive questions asked first may be the best approach to take.

Tone

The tone of your question is always important. Here you only need to think about the tone of your parents’ questions when you had been busted and you were under their glaring light. Obviously, questions asked in a casual manner are much more likely to be responded to fully than a legalistic approach. They will be more likely to be disarmed and open up to you.

However, the authors also note, “People also tend to be more forthcoming when given an escape hatch or “out” in a conversation. For example, if they are told that they can change their answers at any point, they tend to open up more—even though they rarely end up making changes. This might explain why teams and groups find brainstorming sessions so productive. In a whiteboard setting, where anything can be erased and judgment is suspended, people are more likely to answer questions honestly and say things they otherwise might not. Of course, there will be times when an off-the-cuff approach is inappropriate. But in general, an overly formal tone is likely to inhibit people’s willingness to share information.” 

Group dynamics

Conversational dynamics can vary “profoundly depending on whether you’re chatting one-on-one with someone or talking in a group. Not only is the willingness to answer questions affected simply by the presence of others, but members of a group tend to follow one another’s lead.” This can impact any group interview or even meeting you might hold or take place as “In a meeting or group setting, it takes only a few closed-off people for questions to lose their probing power. The opposite is true, too. As soon as one person starts to open up, the rest of the group is likely to follow suit. Group dynamics can also affect how a question asker is perceived.”

This means you should consider the setting of where you may be asking questions. Sometimes group interviews are preferred but it may be that a one-on-one is preferable. As a compliance practitioner, you should have an understanding of these dynamics and how the group setting may influence the information you receive.

The bottom line is “that by asking questions, we naturally improve our emotional intelligence, which in turn makes us better questioners—a virtuous cycle.” The authors have drawn on  insights from behavioral science research to demonstrate how the framing of questions and choosing to answer them can influence the outcome of conversations. They have provided solid “guidance for choosing the best type, tone, sequence, and framing of questions and for deciding what and how much information to share to reap the most benefit from our interactions, not just for ourselves but for our organizations.”

Finally, if you want to go back to the original source, read Plato’s dialogues of Socrates for the best review of how to ask questions.

This publication contains general information only and is based on the experiences and research of the author. The author is not, by means of this publication, rendering business, legal advice, or other professional advice or services. This publication is not a substitute for such legal advice or services, nor should it be used as a basis for any decision or action that may affect your business. Before making any decision or taking any action that may affect your business, you should consult a qualified legal advisor. The author, his affiliates, and related entities shall not be responsible for any loss sustained by any person or entity that relies on this publication. The Author gives his permission to link, post, distribute, or reference this article for any lawful purpose, provided attribution is made to the author. The author can be reached at tfox@tfoxlaw.com.

© Thomas R. Fox, 2018

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