What's Really the Matter? How to Ask the Right Questions

By: Ann Oliveri, FASAE, CAE

When a consultant begins work with an association, the task at hand may only scratch the surface of the association's deeper challenges and dynamics. Asking the right questions is key to finding the right solutions. Six association consultants share the questions they ask to get to the heart of an issue.

Consulting, like learning, is a process of discovery and capacity. Sensing a client's strengths and capacity for change is as critical as surfacing the issues to be resolved.

"Any discovery begins with a conversation about concern," notes Peter Block, a pioneer in organizational development and author of Flawless Consulting: A Guide to Getting Your Expertise Used.

"The presenting problem is usually only a symptom of the real problem, and the purpose of discovery is to elaborate, to deepen, the … initial statement." Yet, "as soon as you call something a problem," Block warns, "you signal that something is wrong and needs fixing."

By shifting focus from deficiencies to assets, Block recommends that consultants ask "the question—that if answered—would initiate a transformation."

So, what is the question you ask to initiate a transformation?

Here is what six ASAE Consultant Section members—representing a cross-section of disciplines, identified in the 2012 Associations Now Guide to Consulting Services [PDF]—said when asked about the most useful questions they ask clients. After you've read these, visit the Consultants Section discussion group in Collaborate to share your favorite questions.

Planning a Discovery Meeting

Adapted from Checklist #5 (pages 214-215) in Flawless Consulting: A Guide to Getting Your Expertise Used, by Peter Block.

Asking questions is an active occasion for learning. Use the meeting as an opportunity to deal with resistance and generate interest and commitment.

1. What is your understanding of the presenting problem or possibility?

  • What technical or business problem is the client likely experiencing?
  • Who is contributing to the problem? Who contributes assets, possibilities?
  • What does the client contribute to the problem or hold back from possibilities?

2. What folklore, history, or culture surround this project?

  • Who are the ogres and angels?
  • What is blocking resolution?
  • Can you identify areas of potential blind spots?

3. How is the problem being managed? Notice how the client manages the discussion with you:

  • How much interest and energy are there on this project?
  • On which points is the client uneasy or defensive versus open to learning and change?
  • Where is the client unrealistic in estimating the ease or difficulty of some action?

For more info, visit www.flawlessconsulting.com.

Where's the Pain?

Peter Turner, senior advisor, global development strategy, MCI Group: "When a client is eager to address questions, it's a tango. … It all depends on the group's tolerance for risk and patience to invest from the ground up over time."

Questions to ask:

  • Emulate success. "Who's been down this road before? What can we learn from first-hand immersion?"
  • Deploy a study mission. "Who can we trust? Who can we work with? What will we learn by walking around?"
  • Test risk-tolerance. "What holds back investment at the board level? What does the staff fear?"

What Do You Worry About Most?

Andrew Lang, CPA, FASAE, president, LangCPA Consulting Inc.: "Working with association CFOs and treasurers, my goal is for each to understand each role's fiduciary responsibility for the good of the organization. Misunderstandings are triggered by a lack of knowledge, trust, and mutual respect."

Questions to ask:

  • Dig deeper. "What do you hope will be discussed and answered? What's not being said?"
  • Identify blind spots. "How do you see what you're not doing?"
  • Clarify assumptions. "How commercially aggressive can you be? Where is your sweet spot?"

Why is This Important?

Kathleen Edwards, CAE, president, The Learning Evangelist LLC: "Questions surface assumptions in need of validation. Clients need to know why and how users decide as well as what's important to learn and why."

Questions to ask:

  • Challenge tactics. "Ask why five times. Why offer education? Why five big events? Why is this important?"
  • Validate assumptions. "What do we know? How do we know? What don't we know?"
  • Rate user experience. "What do members say? What do they do? Can they find what they need? Can they use it?"

What Worked in the Past?

Linda Shinn, CEO, Consensus Management Group: "All too often, the problem is the result of broken trust and it is behavior that needs to change, not the governance structure."

Questions to ask:

  • Evaluate urgency. "Why now? What's changed for us? How serious?"
  • Define success. "From your perspective or role, what does success look like?"
  • Assess climate. "What is the relationship between executive committee and board? National and chapters?"

How Do Others Do It?

Debra Stratton, president, Stratton Publishing & Marketing/Stratton Research: "A symptom, such as we're not selling enough ads,' is the immediate issue. So we help clients step back and see the larger picture by interviewing key staff across department lines and looking at competitors."

Questions to ask:

  • Map the terrain. "What are your challenges?"
  • Identify obstacles. "Where are the roadblocks?"
  • Find patterns. "What does the data reveal?"

What Values Hold You Together?

Pat Nichols, president, Transition Leadership International: "Values transcend generations. How the organization acts on their values, however, will resonate differently across generations."

Questions to ask:

  • Categorize actions. "What experiences connect to those values?"
  • Uncover assets. "What works? What is useful?"
  • Invite perspectives. "What do you see?"

Ann Oliveri is CEO—chief effectiveness officer—of Making Ideas Happen Coaching and Consulting and loves a great question. Twitter: @associationzen; Email: [email protected]

Join the Discussion

What questions do you ask your clients in initial exploratory meetings to deepen the conversation? Share them with colleagues in the Consultants Section discussion group in Collaborate.

Ann Oliveri, FASAE, CAE