If you could think of one change to make in your communication habits that would make you more influential, more interesting, and more well-liked, what would it be? The answer, according to Frank Sesno—and one which I strongly endorse—is to ask more questions. In his book, Ask More: The Power of Questions to Open Doors, Uncover Solutions and Spark Change, Sesno, a former CNN anchor, explains why questions are so powerful and how to ask them.
In this review, I will ask and answer four questions:
- Why should you ask more questions?
- Why read this book?
- What are some of the main lessons?
- How should you read the book?
Why ask more questions?
You probably don’t ask enough questions—so what? The big-picture answer, filtered through the lens of lean communication, is that you are producing less value and more waste than you should. Value is defined by the listener, and if you don’t know your listeners as well as you should, how can you express your points in ways that are most likely to resonate with them? Asking more questions helps you zero in on exactly what’s important to the other person. But even better, asking questions engages the other person so that together you both create more value and more memorable communication. I love this quote from the book: “People forget what they heard, but they remember almost everything they say.”
Why read this book?
There are many good books on questioning, written from the perspective of sales, psychology, management, etc. but this is the first one (that I’ve read, at least) by a journalist, who by definition makes his living through the quality of his questions. Besides the credibility it adds to the book, Sesno’s professional expertise adds two other assets that make Ask More worth reading. First, he knows how to find other credible sources, so he is not just relying on what has worked for him, as so many experts do, and this brings a breadth and diversity of different situations and applications where questioning is helpful. of questioning applications. Second, he knows how to tell stories lucidly and concisely, so the book makes for pleasant and engaging reading.
What are some of the main lessons?
The book is organized into chapters that explain how to ask questions for different purposes, from solving problems to inspiring others, to sparking creative thinking, to building rapport. But regardless of your purpose in asking questions, some general principles come through. Probably the most important is that you should have a purpose and a plan for your questions. Your plan will help ensure that you don’t miss anything important, and your purpose will keep you on track when the person you’re interviewing inevitably throws you off your plan, whether accidentally or on purpose. Second is the importance of knowing how to listen to the answers and what to listen for—especially what is not being said. Third, by learning the basic structure of each specific questioning application, you can apply a reasonably repeatable process that will save you time and ensure you don’t miss anything.
How should you read the book?
If there is one improvement opportunity I would suggest for this book, it would be to go a bit lighter on the stories and heavier on the “how-to”. For example, in the chapter on empathetic questioning, as he introduces a man who got John Hinckley to open up through questions, do we really need to know the path of each of the six bullets John Hinckley fired? That’s why I would suggest that you begin reading the book at page 211, which begins the “Question Guide” section, where the basics of each major questioning task are laid out. Then, you can go back through the book and read the sections that you find most useful, and having the layout of each section in mind will make it easier to tease out the lessons from the stories and extraneous detail.
Despite that last quibble, Ask More is an important and worthwhile book. We can all benefit from improving the quantity and quality of the questions we ask, and I personally resolve to improve on that this year. So, let me end with one more question:
What are you waiting for?
 A few good examples: SPIN Selling and Question Based Selling for Sales; Leading with Questions, for leadership;
Humble Inquiry, for psychology.
Let’s be completely honest with ourselves: sometimes we give gifts to others at least as much to make ourselves look good as to make the recipient happy. For example, when you buy a bottle of wine to give to someone important, you want to get something they will enjoy, but you also want to show your good taste and sophistication.
It’s the same way with books: if there is someone you want to suck up to, maybe your boss’s boss or a prospective client, here are some book recommendations that will meet both goals. They will please the recipient and mark you as an especially discerning and intelligent person at the same time.
Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman is one our most important thinkers, who won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his work, even though he’s a psychologist. This book is both instructive and entertaining, and will help you understand the quirky workings of the human mind. If you’re unsure whether to give this book as a gift, think of what will happen if someone else does before you do.
Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, by Adam Grant. Grant is described as a top-rated teacher at Wharton, and this book shows why. There are several reasons you might not want to get this book for someone, the most important one being that it can be dangerous to be perceived as an original thinker, especially within a large organization.
Pre-Suasion, Robert Cialdini. This is the newest book by one of the acknowledged legends of the influence world. Honestly, I didn’t think it was as good as the book which he’s famous for: Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, but giving it will make you look smart and up to date.
Superforecasting, Philip Tetlock. This book is full of practical ideas to improve your judgment and predictive ability. Using the National Intelligence Council’s 7-point scale, I predict that you are almost certain to impress anyone you give this book to, especially if they think you’ve read it.
How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery, by Kevin Ashton. This book will fascinate and impress anyone who works in or with technology, and they might even find creative ways to thank you for it.
Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Surviving in an Age of Accelerations, by Thomas Friedman. I’m breaking my own rule by recommending a book that I haven’t finished reading yet, but I didn’t want to be late in making this recommendation. If you’re concerned about the state of the world, Friedman will restore your optimism.
P.S. One of the best qualities of each of these books is that they are each so well-written that the recipient will actually read them. So, if you’re going to give one of these, it’s a good idea to buy a copy for yourself and read it!
 Although I have to admit I read it and still got the 2016 election wrong.
Your success as a persuasive communicator depends on both your message and you as the messenger. Of those two, Aristotle told us that the most important is ethos, or how others perceive you. In effect, recipients of your message are asking three questions: do you have good will, good sense and good character?
So, as long as you are an honest, thoughtful and competent person who only has the best interests of others in mind when you’re trying to persuade them, selling and influencing others should be a breeze, right?
Unfortunately, Virginia, now that you’re grown up it’s time to break the news that there is no Santa Claus. Just because you think you have those qualities does not mean that you actually do (at least to the extent that you think), and even if you’re right there is no guarantee that others will see you in the same light. On the other hand, there are plenty of people who don’t have those qualities but are still effective persuaders, because they’ve convinced others that they do. As the old joke goes, sincerity is your best asset—and once you can fake that you’ve got it made.
Let me be clear: I am totally in favor of having good will, good sense, and good character, but just having them is not enough unless others see those qualities in you. And according to Heidi Grant Halvorson’s new book, No One Understands You and What to Do About It, the odds are that they don’t see you the way you see yourself. There are two reasons for this: The first is that people are not as good at decoding emotions and intentions as they think they are, and the second is that everyone makes snap judgments that are prone to error, and those first impressions can be very sticky.
So, what can you do about it? You first have to figure out how others see you, and then make changes as necessary to adjust their perceptions.
To figure out how others see you, there are several things you can do.
- Ask a trusted colleague or two
- Get 360° feedback
- Video yourself
- Get a coach
- Run for president
If you see the need to change, Halvorson provides three useful “lenses” through which others view you:
The Trust lens. The first determination that people make about you is whether they can feel secure around you: what are your intentions (warmth) and can you act on those intentions (competence)? Halvorson suggests that you can increase the perception of your warmth by smiling, listening and in general taking a more active interest in the other person. If you need to kick up your perceived competence, look at people more directly, have a more upright posture, and in general act more confidently.
The Power lens. Power relationships affect how people view others, but it’s generally one-way: people in a one-up position tend to have a skewed view of the less powerful because they seem them primarily in terms of their instrumentality, or their usefulness to themselves; if you’re on the lower end you may not even get noticed enough too favorably impress them unless you can show them what you can do for them. For more on this, here’s an article I wrote recently on Selling Upward.
The Ego lens. The downside of projecting competence is that it can be a threat to the other person’s self-esteem. You can guard against this by being more self-deprecating; not necessarily by toning down your expertise or accomplishments, but by being more open about other weaknesses that you might have. You can also look for ways to praise the other person‘s accomplishment or abilities—as long as it’s credible. Finally, you can stress commonalities between the two of you, so that your abilities reflect favorably on the in-group to which you both belong.
No One Understands You is a good read, especially if you are new to these topics. However, the trust lens is the most powerful and the most practical of the three lenses, and there’s a lot more to it than is covered in this book. For more depth, I would suggest picking up two books: Compelling People and The Trusted Advisor.
If Alen Mayer had written this book about twenty-five years ago, it would have saved me a lot of time and trouble. That’s because, while I make a pretty good living by meeting new people and speaking to groups for hours at a time, I’m also an introvert. It has not always been an easy journey, as I’ve learned through trial and error how to suppress some tendencies on the one hand, and how to take full advantage of some strengths on the other. Introverts in Business: Being Quietly Successfulwould have boosted both my progress and my confidence if I had read it when I was first starting out in my training career.
It may seem unfair, but our business culture favors extroverts: you only need to look at qualities asked for in job descriptions, such as “team player, dynamic, people-oriented”, or track who gets all the air time in meetings. But your natural introversion does not have to be a handicap.
If you’re an introvert just starting in business, or a single contributor moving to a role that requires more teamwork, or are rising to a management role, this book can help you.
How can it help? First, it dispels myths that others—or you—may have about introverts, and that may be holding you back, such as the idea that introverted means being shy, or that introverts can’t succeed in professions such as sales that place a premium on relationship building.
That’s because some of your natural tendencies can actually be strengths. In sales, for example, the prototypical talkative, slap-them-on-the back-and tell-a-joke, professional “friend” is at a loss in many of today’s complex system sales, which require asking questions and listening, and thoughtful analysis about customer needs—both of which favor introverts. In fact, introverts excel at developing deeper relationships which helps with the patient building of influence in complicated decision processes over long sales cycles. By exploiting your strengths, you can “make your quiet presence felt, if not heard.”
That said, sometimes you do need to be heard: there are situations where it pays to step out of your comfort zone and act extroverted, to interrupt, socialize more, or to blow your own horn. Mayer provides useful ideas about how to fake it ‘til you make it in Chapter 3.
Finally, you can read the very detailed and specific suggestions that apply in your role as you move up the corporate ladder, whether you are a team member, manager, senior leader, or entrepreneur. This is where Mayer’s book excels. I’ve written before about Susan Cain’s book, Quiet, which is also excellent. At only 88 pages, Introverts in Business is a quick read, but it’s more of a field guide or handbook, so it’s much more applicable to specific situations you might face.
By the way, if you’re an extrovert, you probably haven’t read this far—but just in case—you can also profit from reading this book, particularly if you’re a manager who wants to get the most out of a mixed team.