I’ve been told that learning information about my counterparts—their preferences, fears, goals, strengths, and weaknesses—is critical for success in negotiation. I need to understand what others care about to be able to trade for issues I care about more. But during my negotiations, I tend to feel unsure about the best way to learn about others, especially information that seems sensitive or private. What is the best way to elicit information from my counterparts?
A: One answer to your question lies in a simple behavior that people do all the time. In fact, you’ve done it just now: asking questions. Though this seems like an intuitive answer, asking questions is an art, one that many people struggle to master. Let’s examine three common guidelines for asking questions that can help you in negotiation:
- Ask, ask, ask. Most people—in life and in negotiations—do not ask nearly enough questions, for several reasons. First, we are self-focused and often don’t think to ask questions about others. Second, we may not ask questions because we’re uninterested in the answers. Third, we realize we could ask questions but, as you expressed, are worried our questions will be perceived as intrusive or offensive.
In negotiation, we want to optimize two goals: learning information and impression management. We need to learn things about our counterpart, but we also want them to like and respect us. Luckily, asking questions satisfies both goals. Based on research I have conducted with my Harvard Business School colleague Karen Huang, not only is asking questions useful for information exchange in a negotiation, but people actually like conversational partners who frequently ask them questions more than those who ask them questions infrequently. Asking questions triggers self-disclosures by the question answerer, which feels good—people typically love talking about themselves. You can expect the question answerer to attribute those good feelings to you (the curious, caring person who asked).
- Content matters, but less than you think. In our research, we find that people are worried about asking questions that could seem too personal, specific, broad, or nosy. But the content of questions matters less than most people think. Generally speaking, people are happy to be asked almost anything; and, in the rare cases when they aren’t, they can choose not to answer.
Master question-askers often start with “small talk” questions on topics unrelated to the negotiation: “What are some of your interests outside work?” or “How was the hotel?” or “I see you went to the University of Wisconsin. Did you like it?” Questions seemingly unrelated to the negotiation help to build rapport by signaling that you care about your counterpart, and the answers may reveal information that is helpful in the negotiation.
When negotiations begin, the way you ask questions can make a difference. Asking pointed questions (e.g., “Has your used iPhone ever been dropped or damaged? Has it ever been repaired?”) inspires more honest answers than open-ended questions that allow the answerer to leave gaps and omissions (e.g., “Can you tell me about the history of this used iPhone?”), research by Maurice Schweitzer and Julia Minson at the Wharton School suggests.
- Listen carefully to answers. Many people don’t listen carefully to people’s answers to their questions. If you don’t listen carefully, you won’t learn the information you seek, and you won’t know what types of follow-up questions to ask. Follow-up questions signal empathy and active listening, which build trust and increase your counterpart’s disclosures. Even saying, “I’m not sure I understand what you mean. Can you tell me more about that?” invites your counterpart to keep talking.
Research by Michael Norton and Todd Rogers of Harvard suggests that people sometimes answer a slightly different question than the one that was asked (“artful dodging”) or say something that is true but deliberately misleading (“paltering”). Careful listening and specific follow-up questions will help you detect dodges and palters from your counterpart.
Alison Wood Brooks
Assistant Professor of Business Administration
Harvard Business School