What Did They Mean?

As we were driving along I listened to my children start a scrap. My daughter made a provocative statement that pricked my son's adolescent sensitivities. He rumbled, in an increasingly threatening tone, "What do you MEAN?" Kati's tail feathers immediately went up -- FWIP! -- and the next step was clear. I could see a lot of wasted time and energy coming.

After we settled down a little, I strong-armed Ryan into asking the same question with a different intention — to find out what Kati meant. It turns out (no surprise) that she was objecting to something Ryan had done… and her provocative statement was her code for communicating it. [It fooled both Ryan and me, and it was PERFECTLY clear to her.]

As I thought about it later, I had the thought that the question, “What do you mean?”, is the heart of effective conversations (generally) and sales conversations (in particular). If we want to contribute to our clients’ thinking and make good recommendations, we have to crack their code by asking questions like:

  • How did you come to that conclusion?
  • What leads you to raise this issue now?
  • What leads you to describe the situation that way?
  • When you say _____, what do you mean?
  • How did you decide to take that course of action?
  • What were the important considerations that led you to that decision?
  • Which of those considerations will be most important?

Often, the conversation doesn’t “feel” smooth because the questions invite your conversation partner to think and experience feelings that aren’t necessarily comfortable…. and they’re very productive. [One key to using these questions is to be gentle and thoughtful in the asking. A subtle shift in voice tone can turn these from really helpful questions to inquisitory weapons.]

Where do you start?  As you listen to your own casual or client conversations during the next week, listen for “complaints” or “conclusions.”

A complaint sounds something like: “It seems like we’re always a day late and a dollar short.” A conclusion sounds something like: “We’d like to review our retirement plan.” Or, “We need to upgrade our computer network.”

Since very few people say or do anything without a reason, your job is to crack the code and understand the motivations. For example:

Conclusion: “We’re concerned that we’re not contributing enough into the retirement plan.”

Instead of jumping to action with, “Well, let’s pull some numbers together and do an analysis” you ask:


  • “Really? How did you come to that conclusion?”
  • “What leads you to raise this issue now?”
  • “What leads you to describe the situation that way?

The words “We’re concerned that we’re not contributing enough into the retirement plan” could mean any number of things, probably not a literal translation of the statement. Your sales conversations will go faster and more productively if you get to the underlying issues. You need to find out, “What did they mean?”

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