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Asking key questions will improve outcomes from stakeholder relationships

01 Jun, 2020 Interpersonal communication, Reputation, trust, stakeholder relations

Whether you are a communication staffer or external consultant, the relationship model advocated by Susan Scott, top US executive coach and author of Fierce Conversations, creates great results. It is a very effective tool to connect with clients and management to achieve deeper mutual understanding. It involves listening, building trust and creating rapport that will develop top relationships between you and your internal and external stakeholders.

Identify the issue

First step in this model is to ask the question,”What is the most important thing you and I should talk about today?”

To adapt this model for a sales conversation or a discussion with your management, you can rephrase the question. For instance, when a potential customer says during your consulting pitch for business: “Tell me about your service?”, you could respond with: “I’d love to, and before I do, please tell me what prompted you to call us.”


  • “Why are we talking today?”
  • “What is it you’re looking for?”
  • “What are your goals?”
  • “What are your intentions for the future?”
  • “Where does it hurt?”
  • “What is/has been getting in your way?”
  • “What are we [our department] doing right, and what can we do better?” (With your current clients and your upper management).

This results in deeper understanding

This is fairly simple and yet you’d be amazed how few people do even this. When this approach is applied to complex sales and complex internal relationships, things get really interesting, resulting in deeper connection and understanding.

Whether it is a one-time transaction or a potential long-term relationship, you can’t overstate the importance of fully understanding your stakeholders’ service needs compared with making superficial assumptions about them. This means you need to stop talking and start listening.

A potential client may ask, “What do you do? Tell me about your services?” And an internal manager may ask, “What can you do to help me with this problem?” But don’t go on autopilot and dive right into your prepared pitch. Resist the urge! Instead, realize that your mission is first to identify what is really, truly important to your internal or external customers. What are their specific needs? This is especially important with operational managers, who often believe communicators offer no help to their part of the business.

Probe deeper

Get past the initial answers. Ask “Why” repeatedly to their initial answers. Or variations like “Why is that?”, “How come?”, “What was the cause?”, “How do you know?” Find out what they are really trying to solve or fix. Until you understand that, you don’t know what you can best do, what will be the best fit.

Since no plan emerges totally intact from a brush with reality, check frequently with your stakeholders to ask, “What has changed since last we met?” Ask questions; clarify. Listen to learn rather than jumping straight in with your own words. Be courageous. If you ask the right questions and listen well you will find out what they win or lose if their goals aren’t met. If you fail to do this, you will have missed the primary reason for decisions and actions they may take. They are your key stakeholders, so make the most of your opportunity.

About the author Kim Harrison

Kim Harrison loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in the eBooks available from

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