How to respond to the toughest questions

In negotiation, answering certain questions directly can put us at a disadvantage. Deflecting with a question of our own can be an effective alternative, according to recent research.

By on / Business Negotiations

What’s the toughest question you’ve ever been asked during a negotiation? If you negotiate frequently, it might be hard to narrow it down to just one. Focusing on job interviews, here are a few questions that candidates often dread:

  • “How much do you earn at your current position?”
  • “We’re looking for a long-term commitment. Can you see yourself working here in five years?”
  • “Do you have any other offers?”
  • “What are your minimum salary requirements?”

Such questions are intimidating not because we don’t know the answers, but because we don’t want to share the information that’s being requested. Most of us feel compelled to respond honestly and completely to direct questions, even when doing so could hurt us. If you are currently underpaid, for example, answering the first question truthfully is liable to keep you that way. (In fact, a number of U.S. states and cities have made it illegal for employers to ask job interviewers what they currently earn because the question puts women and minorities, who earn less than white men overall, at a disadvantage.)

Other common strategies don’t seem much better. Declining to answer a tough question— “I’d rather not answer that” or “I’ll have to get back to you”—can seem evasive. So can dodging—that is, answering a different question than asked, such as saying “I was very happy at my last company” when asked how much you earned there. What about providing truthful statements with the intention to deceive—for instance, saying “My company is generous to its employees” when you personally are underpaid? Negotiators generally perceive such so-called paltering as dishonest, and it increases the odds of impasse, Harvard Kennedy School professor Todd Rogers and his colleagues have found—not to mention that lying outright (such as saying “I’m considering several great offers” when you have none) is never a good choice.

Fortunately, there appears to be a better strategy for responding to difficult questions in job negotiations and beyond. In a new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers T. Bradford Bitterly of the University of Michigan and Maurice E. Schweitzer of the University of Pennsylvania find that deflecting a tough question with a question of your own can help you avoid sharing sensitive information without being deceptive or irritating your counterpart.

An artful response

Across several experiments, Bitterly and Schweitzer looked at how participants responded to deflection as compared to other types of responses to difficult direct questions, including answering truthfully, declining to answer, lying outright, paltering, and dodging. They found that deflecting a tough question with another question conveys curiosity rather than caginess—and is often an effective means of redirecting the conversation away from information you’d rather not share.

In one online experiment, for example, participants were asked to read a transcript of a fictitious negotiation between an art dealer who was trying to sell a painting to a prospective buyer. The painting was said to be one in a series by a recently deceased artist, Jim Brine, and would be much more valuable to the buyer if he or she owned other paintings in the series.

All participants read that the seller asked the buyer, “Are you familiar with Jim Brine, the artist?” Participants then read one of the following buyer responses:

  • Honest disclosure: “I actually bought [another painting in the series] a couple years ago at an auction.”
  • Decline to respond:“I’m not prepared to discuss my collection right now.”
  • Lie of commission:“I’ve never heard of Brine, I just think this piece could look great next to the fireplace.”
  • Palter: “I’m not a professional collector or anything like that.”
  • Dodge: “I’m in town for a couple of days, and I noticed some other paintings at other galleries that I also liked.”
  • Deflection condition: “Didn’t he pass away recently?”

Deflection yielded better economic outcomes for the buyer than honest disclosure. Participants also said they trusted, liked, and would be more interested in negotiating again with a seller who deflected than with one who declined to respond. And while lying, paltering, and dodging at first generated better results than deflection, when participants were told that the buyer had hidden information, deflection proved to be a more effective strategy.

A well-balanced response

Overall, among the techniques that Bitterly and Schweitzer tested, responding to a question with a deflecting question was the best way to improve one’s economic and relational outcomes. Participants tended to respond positively to deflection because they viewed the other party’s question as an attempt to seek additional information rather than as an attempt to obfuscate, another experiment showed. Not surprisingly, participants liked those who responded to a question with a follow-up question better than those who responded with an unrelated question.

In sum, “By responding to a question with a question, individuals can maintain favorable interpersonal impressions, capture economic surplus by avoiding revealing potentially costly economic information, and avoid the risks inherent in using deception,” write Bitterly and Schweitzer.

In last month’s cover story, we discussed a useful strategy for resolving the “negotiator’s dilemma”—the inherent tension in negotiation between cooperating and competing: making multiple, equivalent simultaneous offers. Deflection appears to offer another way to help resolve the negotiator’s dilemma, as it allows us to avoid sharing information that could harm us financially while still appearing cooperative.

Preparing to make questions less difficult

Bitterly and Schweitzer caution that negotiators would be wise to practice their use of deflection, as responding to a question with another question may feel awkward and unnatural. Whether you intend to try deflection or not, it’s always a good idea to prepare for difficult questions, writes Harvard Business School professor James K. Sebenius in a November 2012 Negotiation Briefings article titled “Are You Ready for the ‘Hardest Questions?’”

Sebenius recommends taking time before negotiating to identify difficult questions the other party might ask. Then brainstorm possible responses and choose the one that seems like it would maximize your outcomes while preserving your relationship with the other party. Practice your answers, perhaps by role-playing the negotiation with a trusted colleague.

Once you get to the bargaining table, if your counterpart asks a difficult question that you were expecting, don’t assume he or she is trying to exploit you. “Listen carefully to the other party’s words and for the intent behind them,” writes Sebenius. “Don’t blurt out a prepared response unless it fits the situation.”

Preparing to face difficult questions can help us identify additional data we need to gather, other steps we should take, and various strategies we might try to “steer the negotiation away from the hardest question in the first place,” writes Sebenius. Doing so will put you in a stronger bargaining position and make you feel more comfortable walking away from a subpar agreement.

Are your questions good enough?

Improving your ability to answer tough questions is just one communication challenge in negotiation. Another is ensuring that you ask good questions yourself—ones that move the negotiation forward rather than leaving your counterpart feeling defensive and guarded.

Here are a few types of questions that are generally unproductive, according to University of California at Santa Barbara professor emerita Linda Putnam:

  • Closed questions that can be answered with a yes or no, such as, “Are you satisfied with this offer?”
  • Leading questions that state your position rather than gather information— for instance, “Wouldn’t you agree that we’ve made great progress so far?”
  • Loaded questions that, by conveying judgment, are likely to anger or offend your counterpart, such as, “What offer can you make other than this unfair one?”

The following guidelines will help you ask questions that generate useful information and help build a trusting relationship with your counterpart:

  • Ask neutral, open-ended questions that encourage elaboration: “How can we deepen your satisfaction with this offer?”
  • Ask circular questions—a series of questions that explore the interests underlying the other party’s positions: “What do you think is missing from our agreement so far?” “Do you think there are other people who should be involved in the discussion?” “Can you tell me more about the work they do and how they might contribute to our proposed partnership?”
  • Ask for their advice—for example, “I’ve never worked with a PR firm before. Based on your experience, what do I need to know to better understand your company?” Because most people like giving advice, questions that ask for their expertise can engage them in finding a solution that works for all parties involved, according to Tufts University professor Jeswald Salacuse.
  • Ask “Why?” Negotiators often become so fixated on determining what the other party wants that they forget to ask why they want it. Asking “Why?” encourages negotiators to reveal the purpose behind their intentions—and could lead to the discovery of valuable tradeoffs.
  • Ask closed questions to detect deception. While open-ended questions are best at stimulating productive dialogue, closed questions do have a time and place: Specifically, they’re better at sniffing out deception, research by Maurice Schweitzer of the Wharton School and Julia Minson of the Harvard Kennedy School finds. For example, the question “Has this car ever been in an accident?” will generally inspire a more honest answer than “Can you tell me more about this car’s history?”

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