Consulting is More than a List of Questions


From the very first year I began working with advisors on consultative skills (1997), my workshop participants have asked me, “What are the best questions I should use in my discovery meetings?”

The internet has an answer for you – 497 million answers. That’s the number of results from a recent Google search for “top discovery questions.”

But if there are so many possible answers, is there really such thing as the “best” questions?

Yes, there is a set of best questions for your next discovery meeting… but it’s a different set of questions than it was for your last discovery meeting. This is true because of some things that seem to be true about client meetings:

Three Client Meeting Truisms

  1. Every client is unique
  2. Every meeting is a unique event in space and time
  3. Therefore, the best questions will be unique to any given meeting

In many ways, client meetings resemble a human game of chess. Not competitive chess where you’re trying to beat the other person, but more like a cooperative game of chess where you’re both competing against a goal and against time.

Is that a perfect analogy? Of course not, but it’s the one I’m rolling with. Why, because analogies and metaphors make things more memorable and trigger availability bias. I want you to remember this stuff later.

How to Learn Chess…and Ask Questions

In olden times, if you wanted to learn about chess, there were only a couple of options. You could either go to the library and read about chess, or you could play chess against someone. Those are both excellent ways to learn chess, but now we also have the Internet. That’s where you go when you don’t need to dive super deep into something, you just need enough information to be dangerous.

And that’s exactly what I did for this article – I visited and found a basic article on how to learn to play chess. And you know what? That’s as far as I had to go, because the first principle of learning chess is also the fundamental principle that helps you ask better questions.

#1 Make Sure You Know the Rules.

Think about it: We don’t let people drive cars until they prove they know the rules of the road. You wouldn’t want to go to a fancy dinner party without understanding the rules of etiquette that applied. And in chess, you clearly can’t be successful without knowing the rules.

Why, then, do professional advisors in all walks of life routinely attempt to engage in high-level dialogue without understanding the basic rules of that dialogue?

Answer: We either don’t realize there are rules to discovery, or we think we know the rules but really don’t, like a checkers expert might think their expertise applies to chess. (Spoiler alert: Most of it does not.)

Either instance is a case of unconscious incompetence – you don’t know what you don’t know. If you’re playing chess, no big deal – you can learn as you go. In human relationships, especially professional ones like advising, you don’t have that luxury, just like drivers don’t have the luxury of figuring out the rules as they drive.

The Rulebook for Human Conversation

What do I mean, “The Rulebook”? There is no rulebook for human conversation!

Legitimate point: There is no actual rulebook. However, the rules that we live by as humans do exist in three domains. Get smart in these domains, and you will essentially have learned the rulebook that governs conversation and thus consulting.

Domain 1: Behavioral Styles

Like many of you, I grew up in a household full of what I considered to be stupid people. Some of that feeling came from the pure narcissism of youth, but part of it sprung from my inability to understand the differences between us. My behavioral style, which tends towards rapid, big picture, people-oriented decision making, clashed mightily with my parents’ more deliberate, detailed, and task-oriented outlook.

This lack of understanding severely limited our communication and thus our relationship when I was growing up. Until I gained a fundamental understanding of behavioral styles, I could not empathize, and we could not communicate.

The world of communication really opened up for me when I first took the DiSC behavioral assessment. Once I understood that different people operate in different modes, I was able to flex my style and communicate more effectively. As someone who makes a living in discovery, I have found this to be extremely valuable!

Gaining a solid understanding of behavioral styles is a tremendous asset to professional communicators. That’s why I use the DiSC with all of my clients, and encourage them to share that learning with their clients. Understanding behavioral styles really helps you ask better questions about the right things in the right order.

Domain 2: Cognitive Biases

You know how some people approach life with a “glass half full” or “glass half empty” outlook? Doesn’t that have a profound difference on how they view and answer your questions?

The second set of rules that govern human interaction comes from the cognitive biases that affect all of us. As an advisor, you surely know about loss aversion and prospect theory, but it’s only part of the story. Confirmation bias, similarity bias, availability bias, and a host of others have a huge impact on how we view questions and how likely we are to answer them effectively. When you understand these rules, you understand more about how to frame questions and interpret answers.

Domain 3: Learning Styles

It’s always interesting to me how one-dimensional most advisors are in how they ask questions. Words come out or their mouth and go into the air. Clients emit sounds in response and advisors interpret those sounds. Is that really the best way all the time?

One of the most underrated domains for understanding human behavior is learning styles. Although it’s much deeper than this, simply knowing the difference between how visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners acquire information makes a huge difference in your approach to discovery.

Application: Turning the Rules into Better Dialogue

First, learn the rules.

Next, ditch the script.

Instead, plan a framework that gets you toward the goal, then focus on reading and reacting in the actual meeting. Two of the worst things you can do are over-planning and sticking to an ineffective plan.

The Answer to the Question

The best advisors I observe do it this way. They understand the rules of human engagement, they create bespoke dialogues based on the uniqueness is of people/time/space, and they create more effective, more spontaneous dialogue because of it.

The answer to the question, “What are the best questions?”

You’ll know when you get there…if you know the rules.

Dan Smaida has spent 25 years advising advisors in multiple disciplines, including financial services, information technology, medical technology, and additive manufacturing. He’s the author of Love and Selling¸ and speaks regularly on consultative advising.