At the time of the final presidential debate between President Jimmy Carter and challenger Ronald Reagan during the 1980 election campaign, the U.S. economy was tanking and the Iranian hostage crisis smoldering. Ronald Reagan used his concluding statement of the debate to address a string of questions to the nation that highlighted Carter’s vulnerabilities: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?… Is America as respected throughout the world as it was?” A week later, Reagan went on to triumph in the election. His questions were viewed as pivotal in bringing about that result.
Negotiators often overlook the power of questions to help them achieve their goals. Indeed, they sometimes fear that asking questions will diminish them in the eyes of those across the table. After all, shouldn’t an effective negotiator have all the answers?
In fact, when posed correctly, questions are potent tools that can help you meet three particular negotiation goals: information gathering, relationship building, and persuasion.
1. Questions that inform. Two sisters were locked in a dispute over their recently deceased father’s diamond ring. Finally, in frustration, one asked a key question: “Why do you want the ring?” The other replied, “Because it has a beautiful diamond that I want to use in a pendant.” The first sister responded, “I want the ring because it reminds me of our father.”
Once they realized their interests were different but not necessarily incompatible, the sisters explored possible solutions. They ultimately agreed that the sister who wanted the diamond could have it after she paid to replace it with the birthstone of her sister, who would then keep the ring.
Remember, knowledge of the other side’s interests is always the key to effective dealmaking. The right questions will assist you in discovering those interests.
2. Questions that connect. Questions are not only a means of gaining information, but also a way to send important messages to other people. Through your questioning, you communicate that those across the table are important to you—that you care about their concerns, ideas, and feelings. On the other hand, not asking questions about the other side’s interests may send a powerful message that you don’t care about them and therefore can’t be trusted.
3. Questions that persuade. Most people like to give advice, an inclination that you can put to work in your negotiations. Vice President Joe Biden did just that in the waning days of the Cold War when, as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he tried to persuade Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko to accept changes to a proposed arms control treaty. Detecting Gromyko’s resistance, Biden, instead of insisting on the changes, asked Gromyko’s advice on how to explain some of the treaty’s more problematic provisions to his Senate colleagues. A dialogue ensued, and at one point, Gromyko said, “I see what you mean. Perhaps we can modify the language in this way to take care of that concern.”
Adapted from “Find the Right Negotiator Voice,” by Jeswald W. Salacuse (professor, Tufts University), first published in the Negotiation newsletter, October 2010.