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1. ‘What information do you need?’

Whether I am talking to a senator or a CEO, I’ve found that a surefire way to make any communication harder than it needs to be is by trying to read the other person’s mind. 

It is faster, and more valuable, to ask what information the other person needs, instead of trying to guess. Especially when the person in front of you is making decisions based on what you are sharing. 

I remember asking Senator John McCain this question during a foreign policy briefing once. His answer took our conversation in the direction he needed — instead of to the place I had assumed would be helpful to him. 

You won’t always get a direct answer. Sometimes the other person doesn’t know what information they need. But asking instead of speculating sets all parties up for a more productive conversation.

2. ‘Is there anyone else who needs to be part of this discussion?’

I ask this question at the beginning of every meeting, especially if there is an element of negotiation involved. We sometimes assume that the person in front of us is the final decision-maker, but that isn’t always the case. 

Specifically asking who else needs to be involved ensures that all of the relevant stakeholders — and their respective objections, concerns and perspectives — are brought into the conversation from the beginning, so that what is agreed on in that room can move forward.

If you don’t do this, you run the risk of agreeing to something and thinking you are set, only to find out that others are involved behind the scenes. Then you might have to start from scratch.

3. ‘Who disagrees?’ 

I always make room for this question throughout any conversation. Even if it seems like it will be unpleasant, don’t leave it to the very end, because at that point most of the people in the room will have already mentally wrapped up and moved on. 

Getting clear on disagreements allows you to deal with them before it’s too late. 

When debating our reporting at the CIA, we always solicited disagreements because they made the our overall argument more robust. In commercial and corporate settings, this question can make the final strategy better, because it gives everyone a chance to have their say.

Getting clear on disagreements allows you to deal with them before it’s too late.

One way you can elicit disagreements more subtly or safely is by asking, “If we had to play devil’s advocate, what are some of the weaknesses here?” This way, you invite discussion without singling anybody out.

Never assume silence means that everyone is on board. Try to seek out disagreements one-on-one, in a group setting or in any way you can, so that arguments can be worked through wherever possible. This way, there is more buy-in and less friction during the execution of whatever is decided.

4. ‘I don’t know, but I will find out and come back to you’

This is one of the most powerful and underutilized sentences you can use in stressful environments. At the CIA, we were often told to not answer questions we didn’t have the answers to, because the stakes were so high — but we didn’t leave it at “I don’t know,” either. 

Instead, we said, “I don’t know, but I will find out and come back to you.” I still use this phrase in all of my advisory and consulting work. It is honest, and it ensures that I am only sharing what I know, versus answering just to have something to say. 

Too many people feel pressured to fill silence with made-up, ad-hoc responses. Doing this can break trust, rupture relationships and harm organizations.

It’s the ultimate sign of humility and thoughtfulness when you can confidently say what you don’t know.

Using this phrase in my career has earned me the trust of four-star generals, ambassadors, investors, board members and many other important stakeholders. They may not have been on my side when we started the conversation — but they were at the end of it, because they knew that they could rely on me to be thorough and have conviction in what I brought back to the table.

Rupal Patel’s career has taken her from military briefing rooms in jungles and war zones to corporate boardrooms and international stages. As an analyst and field agent at the CIA, she advised Four-Star Generals, earned War Zone Service Medals, and was recognized by the CIA Director for “superior support to the President of the United States.” Today Patel is an international speaker, corporate consultant, and executive advisor. She holds degrees from Columbia University, the University of Chicago and London Business School. She is an Entrepreneur in Residence at London Business School and Alumni in Residence at the University of Chicago. She is the author of “From CIA To CEO: Unconventional Life Lessons for Thinking Bigger, Leading Better and Being Bolder.”

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