by Achim Nowak

The Power of a PROBING Question

June 13, 2022

The televised January 6th House Committee events last week got me thinking

The entire investigation by the committee is a probe. The questions asked of the witnesses during the telecast probe. And in the video clips shown during the initial telecast, we heard answers that were elicited by probing questions.

Probing is a simple and powerful conversational tool. It always advances a conversation. At its finest, it elicits compelling new information that, in turn, elicits a compelling next question.

Given the at times adversarial context of a congressional hearing, it’s easy to forget that great things can happen when we probe with a measure of grace in our everyday lives. Not the lawyer/prosecutor/interrogator sort of probing. No, the probing for richer personal connection.

Successful people ask better questions, and as a result, they get better answers.” 

Tony Robbins

Lynne Waymon is the recently retired CEO of Contact Counts, a training and consulting firm that teaches professionals how to better network. I vividly remember an article by the Wall Street Journal’s Sue Shellenbarger in which Sue quoted a survey Lynne’s firm had conducted with over 1000 professionals (WSJ, 5/23/17). According to Waymon’s survey, only 1 out of 4 professionals saw value in asking probing questions of strangers.

Startling, right? 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, perhaps. But business success invariably amplifies when we take conscious risks. Business relationships blossom when we consciously probe.

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 HE always wanted to visit New York or how she had an amazing time on HER last trip to the Big Apple. Probing opportunity wasted.

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. It opens a treasure trove of new conversational pathways.

Statement:  I had such a great time in New York.
Question:  So how do you feel while you run 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 interrogator-probing-machines, even when you do it with a smile. Want to deepen a relationship? Probe, probe, and then find a sincere AND substantive link to your own experiences.

Abstract kaleidoscope cityscape background

It is so blazingly self-evident. 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.

Don’t ask your probing question like a prosecutor, ask it with grace. But ask. Ask it often.

And reap the rewards.

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