Form your questions (and outcomes) well

As mentioned in my article on active listening, questions and listening are inextricably linked.  Exploratory questions tend to be open because they are more likely to encourage detailed answers and provide you with the information you need to uncover from your client.

Given that the primary focus of this article is questioning, a good starting point seems to be to spend some time asking ourselves some questions that might be useful prior to an important business meeting.

Frequently used in NLP (neuro-linguistic progamming), this comes under the category of ‘well-formed outcomes’.  In order to produce a well-formed outcome, we need a few well-designed questions.  Examples of these could be:-

’what do I want to have achieved by the end of this meeting?’ or

‘what would a successful result to this meeting look/sound/feel like?’

Spend some time reflecting on what that achievement or success looks/sounds/feels like.  How will you know whether it’s a successful outcome? What will you see, feel, hear, think?  Are there any smells or tastes associated with these successful outcomes?  Make a note of all of this information.

Now you have clarity on what you intend to achieve from that meeting, it’s time to focus on the kinds of questions you want to ask your client in order to uncover their need (which may be neither clear nor known to them) and their desire for a solution.

If you grew up reading Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Just So Stories’ you may remember his ‘Six Honest Serving Men’ poem (in the story of ‘The Elephant’s Child’).

I keep six honest serving-men;
(They taught me all I knew)
Their names are What and Where and When
And How and Where and Who.
I send them over land and sea,
I send them east and west;
But after they have worked for me,
I give them all a rest.

I let them rest from nine till five.
For I am busy then,
As well as breakfast, lunch, and tea,
For they are hungry men:
But different folk have different views;
I know a person small—
She keeps ten million serving-men,
Who get no rest at all!
She sends ’em abroad on her own affairs,
From the second she opens her eyes—
One million Hows, two million Wheres,
And seven million Whys!

It’s certainly worth being judicious with ‘why?’ questions; they can put someone on the defensive.  Useful sometimes for eliciting values, but not necessarily solutions. Questions starting with ‘how?’ are usually more useful in problem-solving, because they help uncover the structure of a problem.

In my active listening article, I outline the ‘funnel method’, where you might (but not necessarily) begin with one or two closed, clarifying questions. They can be very direct, such as ‘Do you have a pitch you need to prepare for in the next two weeks?’ or more subtle enquiries, like ‘in your current role are you often expected to present confidently in front of groups?’

Hopefully, you now have more information.  You can work with this to create more probing-style questions, building on what you’ve learnt in the previous answer.  If you’ve been paying attention to their language, you can use their preferences to formulate your next question.  If they are more visual, and you tend to be more auditory, you might want to adapt your language to say ‘I see your point’ rather than ‘I hear what you’re saying’.

As you progress in the conversation, gaining more information and insights into your client’s needs and expand on what has already been said, you can ask closed questions based on a choice of alternatives you provide (leading questions).  Closed questions can then be used to confirm, clarify or establish the client’s desire for a solution.

If you feel that this is an area where you need some practise, it is worth brainstorming the kinds of questions you might want to use and rehearsing with a colleague.  As with pre-pitch calls, this technique of doing ‘mocks’ can feel odd and rather fake. But if you haven’t already done this kind of exercise, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. It’s remarkable how valuable and relevant the kinds of questions that get unearthed can prove to be for the live pitch or meeting.

Another way of improving your chance of success in a business meeting or a pitch is known in NLP as ‘modelling’.  This tool encourages you to analyse the process of someone who is outstanding in the area you want to be successful and adopt their strategies yourself.

Leading international NLP trainer, consultant and author, Joseph O’Connor, in ‘The NLP Workbook’ outlines the NLP strategy for modelling highly successful people:-

Put simply, an NLP model normally consists of:-

  • the mental strategies
  • the beliefs and values
  • the physiology (external behaviour)
  • the context in which the person being modelled is operating

You can also model your own behaviours from one area where you are very successful to another where you aren’t as effective. It’s similar to what I outlined in my earlier paragraph about well-formed outcomes. You recreate something very vividly.

For example, if you play a musical instrument well and are able to learn and master new pieces relatively easily, you can use modelling to analyse those strategies and apply them to an area you want success in, such as preparing a delicious, nutritious meal that delights your friends and family.


  • Who do you know who is very successful in business development or sales?
  • What kind of questions do they ask clients before, during and even after, a business meeting?
  • What is their optimal state when in a business meeting (what do they think, feel, do, see, hear, etc)?
  • What beliefs do they have about themselves and the outcome of their calls or meetings?
  • What, if any, other strategies do they use?

Once you’ve elicited this information, start applying it to yourself using the NLP model described above.

To paraphrase the co-creator of NLP, Dr Richard Bandler:

‘there is no such thing as a non-resourceful person, just a non-resourceful state’.

Whether it’s in business development, fabulous cooking or brilliant piano playing, wishing you joy and success!