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  • Terry R. Bacon

How to Be More Effective at Consulting

As an influence technique, consulting is the opposite of stating. Stating is asserting your point of view or stating what you want. Consulting is asking questions and engaging other people by drawing them in. How is asking questions a form of influence? Because you can shape the other person’s thinking by asking the right questions. Here are some examples of consulting:

  • This is what I am proposing. Do you think that will work? Could you support that?

  • What do you think it would take for X to succeed?

  • I see your point. What if we modified X by doing XYZ?

  • What do you think would solve this problem? What if we did X?

  • I know X is an obstacle now. But what if it weren’t? Hypothetically, if we could remove X as a barrier, then could you support my idea?

  • I know you are set on having the party this weekend. But it’s a holiday and too many people have other plans. When else could we have the party?

  • How could we convince Mark to agree to these conditions?

When you use consulting, you are engaging other people in the problem solving. Maybe there is an obstacle to your plans. You have an idea about how to overcome that obstacle, but you need the other person to support your idea. Instead of stating it, but ask for their ideas, and if they offer the same idea you had, great. Now the idea came from them, not you, and they will be more likely to support it. Why? Because they thought of it. Now they have ownership of the solution.

What if their idea is not the one you had? If their idea is better, go with it. But if it’s not and you really want to adopt your idea, then you could say, “That is a possibility, but what you said gave me another idea. What about this?” By continuing to ask questions, you are jointly problem solving (even though you are leading the thought process with your questions). This kind of engagement draws the other person into supporting the eventual solution because they were part of its creation, and everyone loves their own baby.

However, the key to good use of this influence technique is to be open-minded about the other person’s responses. If they have better ideas, then use them. In any case, it is ideal if you adopt some part of what the other person says because it makes them co-creators of the solution. Consulting is leading by asking questions.

Tips for Using Consulting

  • People love to give their opinion and to be asked for their ideas, so asking for their thoughts makes them feel valued and respected, which in turn makes them feel better about you. If you can learn to ask good questions that direct the conversation, you will be a much more effective influencer.

  • Ask questions that the other person will likely engage in, be interested in, and enjoy thinking about. Ask questions that pull from their areas of interest and expertise. If you ask questions they are likely to find intriguing, they will become more engaged.

  • Resist the urge to interrupt someone after asking for their ideas—even if you disagree with what they are saying. Interrupting them can feel threatening and disrespectful. It may seem like you are attacking them and devaluing their ideas, which could make them defensive and will likely make them feel worse about you. When you ask someone a question, you are giving them an opening. Let them have it.

  • Also resist the urge to take all the credit. You want the other person to believe that the idea or key parts of it are theirs. That is the whole point of consulting—to get their buy-in/agreement by having them own at least part of the baby. So thank them for their ideas and if, at some later point, credit is being given for the idea, then be sure they are included in the credits.

  • Gain agreement on a series of smaller points before seeking agreement on the major one. This employs a psychological principle called consistency bias. People prefer to be seen as being consistent. So, if they say yes to a series of minor agreements, they are more likely to say to the major agreement that follows.

  • Use Devil’s advocate questions when you encounter a roadblock. A Devil’s advocate question is like the one cited earlier: I know this is an obstacle now. But what if it weren’t? Hypothetically, if we could remove X as a barrier, then could you support my idea? If the other person raises an objection, ask how the situation would change if that objection could be removed. Once the other person reimagines the outcome without that obstacle, then you ask, “How could we remove the obstacle?” This type of question helps people find creative solutions where they saw only obstacles previously.

  • Use motivational interviewing questions. Motivational interviewing is a counseling technique for helping people explore the reasons they are not acting. Here is an example:

You: “On a scale of one to ten, how ready are you to do your homework?”

Them: “Three.”

You: “Why didn’t you pick two?”

Them: “Well, because. . . .” [The reasons they give identify their positive motivators, which you can build on.]

From there, you can explore their rationale for a two and can ask these kinds of questions:

You: “What would help you reach four?” or “How could you motivate yourself to reach four?”

Any type of numerical ranking question can set the stage for creative exploration:

You: “On a scale of one to ten, how far are we from having an ideal solution?”

Them: “Probably a seven.”

You: “Okay, what would it take for us to reach an eight?”

  • Reinforce the ideas you want to hear or those ideas that are going in the right direction:

That is interesting. I hadn’t thought of that.

Great idea. I like that approach.

· When the other person gives you a good idea, ask questions that take the idea further:

What if some customers resist that approach? What could we do then?

How could we make that idea more attractive for the other divisions?

What if management says no? How should we respond?

What do you think are the most important features of this product? What other features would buyers find compelling?

How to Resist Consulting

The consulting technique can be used to lead people around by the nose, like the salesperson seeking a quick close:

Salesperson: “Do you like the color of this new Prius?”

You: “No.”

Salesperson: Which color would you prefer?

You: “Blue.”

Salesperson: I know we have a blue one in stock. Do you like sunroofs?”

You: “Yes.”

Salespeople: “Perfect. The blue one has a sunroof. Let’s get the keys and put you in the driver’s seat.”

The salesperson wants you to buy a new car and is asking assumptive questions to lead you to say yes repeatedly—and then buy a car now rather than later. This is like the salesperson who asks, “Which features of this product do you especially like?” In getting you to think of all the positives, the salesperson is trying to put you in a positive frame of mind for the ultimate question: “When would you like this product delivered? Let’s go write up the contract.” To resist this line of questioning, you must first recognize what is happening. If someone is leading you through a series of questions to which you are answering yes, then break the cycle by saying, “I like the features we have discussed, but I am not going to buy a car now or soon. I am just looking.” Do not give assumptions the validity of truth.

Beware of people asking you Prisoner’s Dilemma questions, which have no right answer: Have you stopped speeding through red lights? A yes answer implies that you used to speed through red lights but do not do it anymore; a no answer implies that you are still doing it. At the heart of every prisoner’s dilemma question is a negative assumption. To respond to these types of questions, challenge the underlying assumption: I don’t make a habit of speeding through red lights.

For a more in-depth discussion of consulting as an influence technique, see Chapter 6 in Elements of Influence (AMACOM Press, 2012). This book is available at and other online retailers.

Photo credits: Young man with woman asking questions: Photo 180645803 © Fizkes |; salesman in auto showroom talking to a customer: ID 194307617

© Pressmaster|; four people meeting: Photo 149439039 © Fizkes |

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