It is what lawyers do. Investigators. Therapists. Or perhaps the frustrated parent who seeks to extract information from a recalcitrant child. Right?
I hear the word “probe,” and I think congressional hearings. Politicians hovering in elevated seats, staring down at a solitary witness with a prosecutorial air. Probing, probing, probing, probing.
A spectacle. Given this context, it’s easy to forget that terrific things can happen in a simple everyday conversation when we probe with a measure of grace. Not the lawyer/prosecutor/interrogator probing. No, probing for greater personal connection.
The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence." - Albert Einstein
Lynne Waymon is the former CEO of Contact Counts, a training firm that teaches professionals how to better network, and the co-author of “Strategic Connections: The New Face of Networking in a Collaborative World.” In a survey her firm conducted with over 1000 professionals, Waymon found that only 1 out of 4 professionals saw value in asking probing questions of strangers.
I’m shocked. We’re not talking senate-hearing-probe here. We’re talking probing to elevate everyday relationships.
Everyday probing, Waymon explains, involves taking a risk. I’m demanding more of you when I ask thought-provoking questions. I’m making an assumption that you’re in this conversation to make something of it.
Risky, yes. But every business relationship blossoms when we consciously probe and take a risk. Want to minimize the risk? Here are my Top 5 Conversational Probing Tips. They work in business and in absolutely every aspect of your life.
1. Always a 2-fer
When you ask someone a question, think Question/Answer/Follow-up Question. The second question confirms that you have heard, that you’re interested, and that you long to know more. It demonstrates curiosity. It’s the relationship builder.
The exception? When the first question creates clear discomfort or disinterest in your conversation, notice the discomfort and move on, unless it is time to have an intentionally disruptive conversation with this individual.
2. The low-risk probe
Asking for specifics as you probe is simple, surefire, and the least risky way of advancing and deepening any conversation.
Statement: I had such a great time in New York over the week-end.
Question: What did you enjoy most during your visit?
Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But how often have you spoken with someone who immediately starts telling you how SHE always wanted to visit New York or how he had an amazing time on HIS last trip to the Big Apple. Probing opportunity wasted.
You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions." - Naguib Mahfouz
3. The high-impact probe
Asking for the WHY drives a conversation to the other person’s deeper purpose and motivation. Your conversation drops to a more intimate, more vulnerable and ultimately more enriching level. It is simply inevitable.
Statement: I just love spending time in New York.
Question: Why do you think you enjoy being in New York so much?
4. The what-did-you-feel probe
Asking to name an emotion may seem a little therapy-ish to you. Overuse it, and folks may indeed tell you to stop “being my shrink.” But our emotions are the hidden level beyond thought where we commit to, or resist, any situation or experience. Naming an emotion will invariably invite powerful personal testimony.
Statement: I had such a great time in New York.
Question: So how did it actually feel to be running around in New York?
5. Know when to un-probe
I hang out with professional coaches. Many of them are masters at asking probing questions. Coaches have also been trained to keep themselves out of the conversation. While that may work in a coaching conversation, it NEVER works in a business conversation. Keep probing and probing, and you become one of those investigator-probing-machines, even when you do it with a smile. Stop it.
Want to deepen a relationship? Probe, probe, and then find a sincere AND substantive link to your own experiences.
It’s so very clear. If you want to succeed in your relationships – any relationships – asking a probing question is a non-negotiable skill. NOT probing isn’t an option.
Tis the holiday season. Chances are, you will engage with more people than usual. Don’t ask the probing questions like a prosecutor, ask them with grace. But ask. Ask them often.
And reap the rewards.
Related: My 3 Favorite Thanksgiving Questions