Sensitive Questions: Rude or Invested in Success?


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Don’t be afraid to ask the questions that will lead to real solutions for your clients.


Ultimately, we succeed when we help others succeed, and I believe this is the role of sales and customer service professionals. The opportunities are many, such as helping a clinic improve compliance parasite control programs, or growing wellness or insurance plan participation that helps manage the cost of care for clients.

That goal of helping others succeed then begs the questions, “How can we help others succeed if we don’t know where they want to go?” or “What is standing in the way?” Or any number of additional questions that will provide us with information that is needed if we really want to help others succeed.

I was surprised to read of a research project from the School of Business at George Mason University. It concluded that many business school students were reluctant to ask what they defined as “sensitive” business questions because of the fear of being rude. Those fears are not limited to MBAs. I have seen the same reluctance in DVMs, vet techs, distribution reps and across animal healthcare as well as most other industries.

While no one wants to be seen as rude, nosey, overbearing, or insensitive, I believe the fear of asking some questions is often overblown. After all, the best decisions, business or personal, are based on the best information available at that time. So, consider these suggestions to reduce the risk of appearing rude when asking questions that could be considered sensitive.

Keys to the right questions

Business questions should be brief, concise, and open-ended. Prefacing your question with a preamble to soften the question is never a clever idea. Your mission is to gather information, not to become enamored with the sound of your own voice. Open-ended questions get information, while close-ended questions only get confirmation. So never ask a question that can be answered with a “yes” or “no” while you are in the investigative portion of the conversation. Save those for the conclusion of the conversation when you are confirming your understanding of the information uncovered.

Desensitize the questions by triangulating to focus on the problem as opposed to the people. Replace the words “you” and “yours” with “it,” “that,” and “this.” Personal pronouns evoke emotions, one of which is sensitivity. Impersonal pronouns keep the focus on logic and fact. Some emotion will always be present in any conversation, so the challenge is to minimize the impact of negative emotion while boosting the effects of positive emotion.

A simple question like, “How important is teamwork in the practice?” reveals our own bias. It shows we believe teamwork is important and are only interested in understanding the degree of importance in this practice. Check your biases at the door by creating neutral questions, such as “What does the practice’s culture look like?” or “can you help me understand your practice’s culture.”

Asking the right questions, the right way, is a good start. The way you acknowledge the responses you receive to those questions is of equal importance. Questions without acknowledgement of the responses received is rude and sounds very much like an interrogation.

Be present. Unfortunately, many of us plan our next question while our client is still responding to the initial question. Their responses deserve our 100% attention. A brief pause often signals how well we are processing the information just received.

There is a dramatic difference between hearing a response and understanding it. Prove you truly do understand by briefly summarizing the response or by asking a relevant question about the response.

Remember, your questions are asking for another’s point of view. Do not be surprised if that conflicts with your own point of view. This is where the word “respect” goes a long way facilitating an informative conversation. Also, remember that the word “respect” is not synonymous with the word “agree.” You are not saying the other person is right, rather you are simply respecting their right to a different point of view at this moment in the conversation.

Business runs on the best information available. You are in the business of helping your clients succeed, and to do that you must obtain the information that drives successful decisions. Appropriate business questions will help you and your client get where you both wish to go.

P.S. Have a business question that you are reluctant to ask? Send it to me with the appropriate context and I will offer my suggestions.



Patrick T. Malone, Patrick T. Malone is a business advisor and leadership mentor based in Taylors, South Carolina. He is the co-author of the best-selling business book “Cracking the Code to Leadership” and may be reached at [email protected] or 404-630-7504.


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