Good Thought Partners Ask ‘What If…’

Build credibility and influence with implication questions

A powerful way for leaders to build credibility and influence is by being a ‘thought partner.’ And asking implication questions can put you on that path.

But before drilling down on ‘What if…?’ questions, consider the power of being a real thought partner. This is a genuine privilege in the professional world: of all the people available for this role, someone has chosen you to be their sounding board, a person with whom they can have a genuine and constructive dialogue. This is a rare thing.

Beyond that, being tapped as someone’s thought partner indicates that person values and respects your judgment. That in itself is a powerful compliment: he or she would consult with you before making an important decision, and evidently believes you to be credible and discreet. You are being invited to influence another individual. In a word, this person trusts you.

But how does one arrive at this enviable position of credibility, influence and trust? It doesn’t happen overnight. Building this kind of relationship takes time, patience and effort. Beyond that, it often requires the realisation that we can make vital contributions with our questions as well as with our answers.


The power of questions

Being credible and influential – for customers, colleagues or other stakeholders – is not always a function of providing ‘the answer’: many answers evolve over time, and we can make a significant contribution to the problem-solving process by asking the right question at the right moment.

And there are many different questions we can ask. The first letter of the SMI question model reminds us that many questions are situational: who, what, where, when, how, how much?

These are the various questions we ask in any language to determine what the situation is at a given moment: ‘Who’s there? What happened? Where are you going? How much does this cost?’ 

The letter M in the model reminds us of the important motivation questions, the queries that typically begin with the word ‘Why?’: ‘Why did we lose that account?’ Why are we under-budget on this?’ ‘Why is our strongest competitor gaining market share?’ We want an explanation.

We are all familiar with asking situational questions – who, what, where, when, how, how much? –  and then following up with motivation questions to ascertain why that situation exists: the reasons. We are all skilled at asking these questions and gathering the required answers. Then we typically write up the report, prepare the presentation or move on to another challenge.

But there is another question that we often fail to ask, one that may lead to lateral thinking and valuable innovation. This is the ‘What if…’ or implication question: ‘What if you had two more days?’ ‘What if we could find money in the budget for that equipment?’ ‘What if we could release that constraint?’ And so on.

Implication questions invite us to think about possibilities, to consider other perspectives, and to work around obstacles. This helps make implication questions strategic. Posed at the right moment, these questions build our credibility and personal influence because they get people to think, often in original and unexpected ways. Implication questions need to be in our influence and leadership toolboxes.


It isn’t always easy

Asking implication questions – pushing ourselves and others to look beyond the immediate answer to consider possibilities and better solutions – can add considerable value. Even when we don’t yet know the answer, the right question can generate insight, clarity or additional questions and discussion that move you closer to the solution.

But we often fail to ask implication questions, and an opportunity for insight and innovation may be lost. If implication questions are so great for problem-solving and creative thinking, why aren’t we asking them all the time? There are actually some pretty clear reasons why we are not:

  • Asking these questions requires focus and mental energy, and we may be too busy or distracted to engage at the critical moment.
  • Timing is critical, but if we aren’t listening carefully we may miss the moment to pose that powerful question.
  • With stress and time pressure, we may be inclined to get the answers to our S or M questions and then say to ourselves, ‘Okay, I guess I have enough.’ We don’t push for the better solution.
  • Sometimes we may fear speaking out of turn, raising a question that it may not be our place to ask due to our position in the group.
  • Finally, powerful implication questions can require imagination, and sometimes we are just too tired. It happens.


Thought partner, innovative thinker, pusher of boundaries, challenger of assumptions: these tasks are not for everyone. But if these are the credible, influential roles you want to play in your organisation, ask more implication questions; they will make a difference.

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