Ask better questions in negotiation

Gather information that will expand the possibilities.

By on / Negotiation Skills

Consider questions you might overhear in a typical business negotiation:
■ “ You want how much for that order?”
■ “Can you see what an excellent offer this is?”
■ “Are you ready to take this deal, yes or no?”

It’s not difficult to see the limitations of these questions. The first one is likely to promote defensiveness. The second one sounds patronizing. The third shuts off discussion, perhaps even before it’s truly begun.

Asking questions can reveal a wealth of valuable information in negotiation. Yet most negotiators do not ask enough questions or share enough information, instead choosing to devote most of their time at the table to arguing or defending their positions. When they do ask questions, they tend to express them in ways that fail to elicit useful information or that even antagonize the other party.

If negotiators have difficulty asking effective questions, it may be in part because little guidance has been offered to clarify the various types of questions to ask and the best way to express them. In a recent article in the Negotiation Journal, Georgia State University professor Edward W. Miles attempts to fill this gap by integrating research on questioning from philosophy, linguistics, law, and other fields to develop strategies that negotiators can apply to draw out more useful information from their counterparts. We combine this advice with thoughts on ensuring that your questions spur the kind of productive discussion that will get you and your counterpart a great deal.

Why negotiators resist questions
Questioning is one critical way that negotiators gather information, alongside strategies such as researching the market and your counterpart and offering information in the hope that it will be reciprocated.

A key barrier to gathering information through questioning is the fact that negotiators often resist answering questions. Because of the common tendency to view negotiation as a battle over a fixed pie of resources rather than as an opportunity to work together to discover new sources of value, negotiators often regard questions with suspicion. Questions from a counterpart can make them feel vulnerable and exposed to possible exploitation. The desire to protect one’s sense of “face,” or the image we present to the world, underlies negotiators’ resistance to questions, writes Miles.

This concern is not entirely unfounded. In distributive negotiations, which involve haggling over a single issue, negotiators often ask questions not to gather important information but to substantiate their own point of view or challenge their counterparts’ arguments. Questioning taps into the fundamental conflict at the heart of negotiation between needing to share information to uncover valuable tradeoffs and the risk of sharing information that could be used against you.

Overcoming resistance
Questioning can cause negotiators to feel threatened even when no threat was intended. As Miles writes, “The question that is asked is not necessarily the question that is heard.” Suppose, for example, that you are interviewing a job candidate who has a recent gap in her résumé. “What have you been doing the past three years?” you ask. If the woman is self-conscious about having put her career on hold to take care of her children, she might hear implicit criticism in the question and react defensively, when in fact your question was sincere and you have no serious concerns about the employment gap.

Given people’s natural resistance to being “interrogated” in negotiation, how can you express your questions in a way that elicits honest, useful answers?

Negotiators may be unsure whether the motives behind the questions are cooperative or competitive. Thus, you can reduce resistance by asking questions that communicate a desire to gather information to achieve mutual gains rather than a desire for personal gain at the other person’s expense. This emphasis on collaboration can be especially important if you are the less powerful party, as powerful negotiators typically have more freedom to resist undesired questioning and even walk away from the negotiation altogether, according to Miles.

The following three points offer more specific advice on how to ask questions that will elicit complex answers and improve the likelihood of reaching a mutually beneficial agreement.

1. Lean toward open questions.
Questions can be categorized in different ways, but the most basic distinction is whether a question is said to be “closed” or “open.”

Open questions often begin with the words who, whose, what, when, which, why, and how. Examples include “When do you estimate you could ship our first order?” and “How do you propose to meet our interests on the pricing issue?”

By contrast, closed questions typically prompt brief yes or no answers: “Does your company offer a discount for prepayment?” or “We are already signed up for the premium plan, aren’t we?”

When it comes to information gathering, open questions are generally superior to closed questions, according to Miles. Open questions tend to be perceived as less threatening than closed questions because they give negotiators latitude to decide how much information they will share. They also encourage negotiators to provide detailed answers rather than one-word responses.
That’s not to say that closed questions don’t serve a purpose. In particular, they can help you control the conversation when you need a straight answer. But because closed questions tend to elicit limited information and discourage back-and-forth dialogue, open questions are generally preferable, particularly in the early stages of negotiation when parties know little about one another’s interests, needs, and priorities.

Finally, a common mistake is to tack a closed question onto an open question, such as: “Can you describe what the process is like with your current supplier? Are they hitting their targets?” Your counterpart might choose to quickly answer the second, closed question rather than giving you the more in-depth information that the first, open question could inspire.

2. Ask probing questions.
If you find your counterpart’s response to a question to be incomplete, there are various ways you can probe for additional information using follow-up questions or implied questions. In their book Interviewing: Principles and Practices (McGraw-Hill, 2010), Charles Stewart and William Cash describe numerous “probes,” some of which can be usefully applied to negotiation, according to Miles.

First, you can use a nudging probe, such as “I see,” “Tell me more,” or “What happened after that?” Such prompts exert subtle social pressure on people who are resisting questions to respond more thoroughly.

Second, and conversely, you could use a silence probe: Rather than rushing to fill the silence after your counterpart has spoken, you could put on the social pressure by simply waiting for her to say more, perhaps nodding your head in encouragement and keeping your pen poised to write down the valuable information you are expecting her to provide.

Third, an information probe is a follow-up question that asks for added or clarifying information following a response that you judge to be incomplete. For instance, if you ask about deadlines and your counterpart responds that his company needs more time than is built into a schedule, you might say, “When you say you need additional time, can you be more specific?”

Fourth, a summary probe involves summarizing a counterpart’s responses to more than one question. Here’s an example: “So it sounds like you would need six months to complete the project and that 30 employees would be involved. Is that right?”

Fifth, a clearinghouse probe seeks to gather any relevant information that the other party has not yet explained about a given issue or issues. An example of a clearinghouse probe would be: “Are there any other concerns you have about working with us that we haven’t addressed yet?”

3. Combine neutral questions with explanations.
There are several ways you can break down a counterpart’s resistance to being questioned and promote open information sharing.
First, avoid asking leading questions and loaded questions that convey a particular bias or point of view. In particular, there are two types of questions to guard against, according to Texas A&M professor Linda L. Putnam. Leading questions are statements of opinion disguised as questions, such as “Don’t you think this project has been highly successful so far?” Such a question not only fails to ask for new information but also can prompt the other side to become defensive if she disagrees with you.

Similarly, loaded questions such as “Don’t you have any other proposals to offer?” can promote a hostile environment.

To build trust and encourage open responses, try to phrase questions as neutrally as possible in negotiation. (For instance, “How do you think the project is going so far?”) In addition, giving an explanation before asking a question can be an effective means of prompting a useful reply. For example, you might say: “We have found that some clients prefer the flexibility of a month-to-month contract, while others prefer to lock in savings with an annual contract. Can you tell me what preferences you currently have for the different payment options, and why?” When negotiators provide an explanation before making an inquiry, their question seems less intrusive and confrontational, Putnam has found.

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