I used to run a Consultancy Skills workshop with a group of very bright consultants, some of them real gurus in their field, all working for a market leading organisation.  People pay them serious money for their insight and global perspective on their market.

The Achilles Heel which used to emerge every time I ran it could be summarised in two ways. 

Firstly, they know too much. It’s been my experience that the older you are and supposedly “wiser”, the less easy it is to keep an open mind.

And secondly, they close in too quickly on the answer.  The latter behaviour is, according to research, one of the most frequent problems in consultancy assignments.

We used to discuss this problem and ask where it came from.  Invariably people concluded that it was because they felt that as a paid consultant you need to show off how much you know, and therefore it is not OK to ask information gathering questions such as “Why?”  or “Why not?”.  As a result, the consultant misses the context, the client never feels understood, and the core issues lying beneath the problem are often not exposed.

The same vulnerability or Faulty Thinking lies under the second “closing down the option too soon” behaviour:  I can smell an answer, and because I am supposed to be super-intelligent because they are paying all this money, I had better get the answer out quickly.

I would argue that it is way more effective to NOT know the answer, and instead to adapt the mindset of a 5 year old. 

When you are this age you have to learn by gathering information effectively.  You do it by asking Open questions (Who What Why When Where How), often several of them in a row.  The Chinese have a proverb which says if you ask “Why?” seven times in a row, the person you are asking goes mad.  Try that one out for size at some point today and see what happens!

From this discussion we move into what are the great “Killer questions” you would like to ask your client, assuming any question goes and they will answer everything truthfully and without judging you.  This checklist is a great takeaway, and very comforting to have in your “toolkit”.  Here are my Top 5  favourites:

  • What will happen if this doesn’t work?
  • Why are you asking me to do this?
  • What will success mean to you personally?
  • What do I need to be aware of?
  • What haven’t I asked you that I should have?

If all this sounds a bit airy fairy, let me give you one concrete example of how this change of mindset can make a measurable difference.  One of my previous learners contacted me recently and told me how this had worked for him.  A potential client had been in touch asking his team to carry out a piece of work with an estimated budget of £20,000.  When my learner decided to probe more to get the context (which he would not have done prior to the course)  it turned out that the output of the assignment was to be used to fight a legal case, and it ended up with my learner helping them with it and appearing in court to support them:  revised budget £500,000.  Kerrrching!

5 year olds use the best question most often, because it works so well:  “Why?”  We shy away from it because we think it is rude or makes us look unhelpful.  In fact, to my mind, it is the most helpful question you can ask a client, and it often leads to breakthrough.  Let me urge you to use it at least 3 times per day for the next week, and see what difference it makes to mutual understanding and collaborative solutions.

If you would like some more from my Killer Questions toolkit, do drop me a line:

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