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The most important question nobody asks

(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY These days, everyone's always networking, calling, texting, and tweeting. They think they're getting somewhere and accomplishing things, but they're really not. That's because they never stop to ask the one question that unlocks the door to everything they're looking for. 

That question is, "What do you think?"

Now, you probably know that asking leading questions gets people to open up. It encourages them to talk, to share information, to tell you what's on their mind while you listen. Fair enough. But I bet you don't know how much more that one question can do. It can change everything, even your life.

It can get opportunity to knock, break through a deadlocked negotiation, challenge an employee to break out of his shell, or present an olive branch to an angry coworker. It can even get a potential customer to tell you how to win her business or coax your boss into revealing what it will take for you to get promoted.

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Here are three real-life stories about the most important question nobody asks.

Asking opportunity to knock

During a casual dinner meeting with an important strategic partner, I expressed concern over the negative press his company had been getting and asked, "What do you think is the problem?" He surprised me by explaining that their revolving door of marketing VPs wasn't working out so well. Then he looked at me -- an up-and-coming marketing executive -- and you could almost see the light bulb go on above his head.

That opened the door to the most important opportunity of my career as a senior executive with a public company. But you know, I'll always wonder if that was somewhere in the back of my mind all along. If so, I wasn't aware of it, that's for sure. 

Breaking a hopelessly deadlocked negotiation

There's nothing more frustrating than a negotiation where both sides have dug in their heels and nobody is budging. In the middle of such a negotiation with a Japanese company, out of the blue our general counsel asked his counterpart, "How do you think we should proceed now?"

That took me by surprise; I had no idea where he was going with such an open-ended question. But the opposing counsel responded with an idea that, frankly, I never thought would fly with them. But it broke the deadlock and the deal eventually got done.

In private, our general counsel later told me that he'd had the same idea but knew that if he'd brought it up, it would have been rejected. It had to come from our opponents so they could save face.

Salvaging a sinking job interview

If you've ever set your sights on a job you wanted so badly you'd do anything to get it, you'll appreciate this story. I'd managed to swing an initial interview with the company's CEO, but since the position had just opened up and there was no job spec or executive recruiter, I had precious little to go on to determine how to position myself as the best candidate. To make matters worse, the CEO was a notoriously quiet guy who kept things close to his vest.

Since the interview was going nowhere, I took a chance with a direct question I thought he couldn't dodge, "If today was my first day on the job, what would you say are my top three priorities?" Sure enough, he responded with not three but four detailed objectives. I took copious notes and, when I came back for the follow-up interview, I was able to provide a detailed plan for achieving each goal.

Yes, I got the job.

I can probably come up with a dozen stories just like those. But here's the thing -- I can remember being taught to ask leading questions and be an active listener early in my career, but I don't recall anyone telling me it can be like a master key that opens all sorts of locked doors. Or that becoming adept at it could change your life. Now I know. And so do you.

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