Turn Your Adversary Into Your Advocate: How to Ask for Advice

By — on / Business Negotiations

Advice seeking is a versatile negotiation tool, as long as you project the right image and tone. Here are three guidelines:

Express Your Overall Competence First

Many negotiators worry that asking an adversary for advice will make them seem weak. This fear often is unfounded. In one study, we had MBA students engage in a simulated performance review in which a junior manager meets with his boss to discuss his prospects for being promoted to partner. When the junior managers received a surprisingly negative performance review and asked for advice on how to improve their behavior to secure partnership, their bosses considered them to be more likable and more competent than those who did not ask for advice.

To achieve such gains, open by affirming your general competence and then request advice in an isolated domain: “I’ve consistently led the sales team on this product, but this demographic is new to me. I’d love to get your advice on the best way to approach this market segment.

Make Your Request Specific

Many people enter negotiation with a quid pro quo attitude, so don’t be surprised if your simple request for advice is reciprocated with an enumerated wish list. To avoid triggering aggressive demands, make your request as specific as possible. Furthermore, as opposed to a general cry for help, a specific request will encourage your counterpart to tailor a response that works for you, and it also will lessen the possibility that he’ll view you as an overwhelming or needy “project” to be avoided.

As an example, a friend who had overstayed her U.S. visa flew to her home country to rectify the situation in the hope of returning to the United States under legal terms. “What should I do?” she asked an officer at the American consulate, who offerred an apathetic and pessimistic response.

Our friend returned to the consulate another day and found herself facing the same officer. This time, she explained that she was going to request a letter of pardon from a U.S. congresswoman to facilitate the reentry process. “Can you please advise me on how this letter should be worded?” she asked. In response to this specific request for advice, the officer softened his stance and explained exactly how to write the letter to increase her chances of success with the pardoning board.

Emphasize the Exclusivity of Your Request

We seek advice from specific individuals for a reason, so don’t forget to highlight why you’ve selected your particular adviser. Mentioning your adviser’s unique qualifications and experience is not only flattering but also demonstrates that you’re a discriminating advice seeker rather than a serial one.

Discover step-by-step techniques for avoiding common business negotiation pitfalls when you download a copy of the FREE special report, Business Negotiation Strategies: How to Negotiate Better Business Deals, from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.

Related Article: Why You Should Question Your Agent’s Objective Advice

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