Power Questions: A book review by Bob Morris

Power Questions: Build Relationships, Win New Business, and Influence Others
Andrew Sobel and Jerold Panas
John Wiley & Sons (2011)

If you don’t know the right questions to ask and how/when to ask them, you’ll never find the right answers.

I do not know of another business thinker, indeed another person, who asks better questions than Andrew Sobel does and that is a talent he has developed over several decades. Each of his three previously published books was written in direct response to an especially serious business question and his latest book is no exception: How to build relationships, win new business, and influence others? Sobel and co-author Jerold Panas offer and discuss 337 “essential” questions that can obtain information that will help to achieve these three separate but interdependent objectives.

How so “interdependent”? If an organization does not build and constantly strengthen relationships with everyone involved in the given enterprise, it will lose its most valuable employees, clients, and allies and, for the same reasons, fail to replace them. True, this company “influences others” but in all he wrong ways.

Sobel and Panas organize their material within 35 chapters that contain a total of 42 questions (five in Chapter 35) within a narrative significantly enhanced by anecdotes that illustrate the power of questions that can either strengthen or weaken a relationship, increase or reduce the chances of achieving a desired objective. Then 293 additional “Power” questions are provided in the final section, “Not Just for Sunday.”

I really appreciate how cleverly Sobel and Panas frame their material in a reader-friendly fashion. For example, they pose a question and then suggest how and when to use that question most effectively. One of my personal favorites is “Is this the best you can do?” apparently one that many others such as Steve Jobs and Henry Kissinger have frequently posed. Sobel and Panas note that use of this question should be reserved for occasions “when it is especially desirable for someone to do their very best and push themselves to their strained and stretched limits.” I agree. They then suggest when specifically to use the question and alternative versions of the question, and alternative versions of it. This is a clever format repeated throughout the book. Here are three other “Power Questions” that caught my eye:

“What did you learn from that?” (Chapter 16)
Comment: Every setback (don’t call it a failure) should be a valuable learning opportunity.

“Can we start over?” (Chapter 8)
Comment: What isn’t working, what isn’t happening, will often reveal what will. The Lakota suggest never feeding a dead horse.

“What do you wish you could do more of?” (Chapter 25)
Comment: The best career advice I ever encountered was offered by Teresa Amabile during a commencement address at Stanford. In effect, do what you love (and are passionate about) because you will then be doing what you do best. People do not necessarily have to change a position to do what they do best and love most.

Some of the power questions work best in a career situation, others in a personal situation, and still others in both. Think of the 337 questions that Sobel and Panas pose and discuss as a base, a foundation, on which to build skills first exemplified by Socrates (c. 469 BC – 399 BC).

To those who are about to read this brilliant book, I presume to suggest they keep this question in mind: “In which situations will asking the right questions be most important to me?” For some people, this may well be the most valuable book on building healthy relationships that they will ever read…but only IF they continuously apply effectively what they have learned.


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