When the Apple Macintosh was in development, Steve Jobs used a question to motivate his team. After watching a demonstration of the latest prototype, he would ask, "Is that the best you can do?" Then he would walk out of the room in a huff. No one said Jobs was a nice guy. But he knew how to use tough questions to motivate his team.

That story and other uses of questions are the focus of an excellent book "Power Questions: Build Relationships, Win New Business, and Influence Others" by Andrew Sobel and Jerold Panas.

"Good questions are often far more powerful than answers," write Sobel and Panas in their book published last year. "Good questions challenge your thinking. They reframe and redefine the problem. They throw cold water on our most dearly held assumptions and force us out of our traditional thinking."

The book provides hundreds of so-called "Power Questions" designed to help you succeed in business and in life. I was most interested in questions focused on two areas.

Relationship Starters

The book is loaded with stories and examples about questions that help build personal relationships. Here are a few of my favorites.

• "What do you think?"

• "What is your dream?"

• "Why do you do what you do?"

• "How did you get started in your field?"

Sobel and Panas point out that these open-ended questions show a deep level of interest and create engaging conversations. Indeed one good question may be all that you need to kick-start a relationship.

For example, about five years ago, I met someone at one of our workshops that asked me "What do you do when you're not teaching?" I told him that I loved to fly fish. His eyes lit up, and he told me about his love of fishing. Before long we had scheduled time to fish together. And we're fishing buddies to this day.

That relationship started with a "power question."

Business Boosters

Sobel and Panas suggest several questions designed to help elicit needs from prospective clients.

• "What are your biggest priorities for this year?"

• "How does this project fit in with your firm's goals?"

• "What is stopping you from moving forward with us right now?"

• "I've read that your industry is facing [insert business challenge]. How are you approaching that challenge?"

Or sometimes the best question is simply a request for clarification.

For example, here's a situation that happens in conference rooms every day. A law firm is trying to win work from a large business. As the meeting starts, the CFO says, "Tell us about your firm."

The attorney proceeds to answer the question with a long stream of details about the firm's history, client base, and "team approach." Of course, they don't get the work.

What went wrong? That answer was a one-way brain dump of information that didn't connect with client needs.

When someone says "Tell us about your firm," Sobel and Panas suggest answering with a question: "What would you like to know about us?"

The client might then say "Well, we really want to know your approach to complex litigation."

Now you have the basis for a conversation that engages the client in how you can help them meet their needs.

Thanks to a "power question," you just might win the business.