Negotiation research you can use: Have you tried a hypothetical question?

By on / Negotiation Skills

Asking questions can be a powerful way to root out information and deflect questions you don’t want to answer, as we discussed in last month’s cover story. In a new paper published in the Negotiation Journal, University of Amsterdam researchers Diyan Nikolov Grigorov and A. Francisca Snoeck Henkemans suggest that a particular kind of question may be especially useful when delivering offers and proposals in negotiation: hypothetical ones.

In negotiation, hypothetical questions include a condition or presupposition that encourages the listener to take your point of view, such as “Would you be able to go any lower if we waived our delivery fee?” or “If we moved back the closing date, would you be willing to pay for the house to be painted?”

Presenting a proposal or offer in the form of a hypothetical question can make it more persuasive and palatable, Grigorov and Snoeck Henkemans suggest. Because the hypothetical implies an idea that could be easily revoked or disavowed, it may allow us to negotiate aggressively while still being perceived as cooperative and flexible.

To illustrate the potential power of hypothetical questions in negotiation, the researchers analyzed interactions in the British reality television show Dragons’ Den. In the show, entrepreneurs take turns pitching their ideas to a panel of investors. If an investor is interested in a project, he or she may choose to negotiate funding with the entrepreneur (as in the show’s American version, Shark Tank).

In one episode, for example, business partners Aidan Quinn and Gemma Roe were seeking an investment of 75,000 pounds in exchange for 15% equity in their eco-home construction company. The only interested investor, Theo Paphitis, initially demanded 45% of the business in exchange for the 75,000 pounds. After some haggling, he made a “final offer” of 40% if the business showed a certain amount of profit. Quinn then responded, “What if we meet all our targets within 12 months. We give you 50% of your investment back, and . . . you reduce your shareholding to 30%?” Paphitis agreed to the deal.

With his hypothetical (“What if . . . ?”), Quinn implicitly proposed that it would be more beneficial for Paphitis to obtain 30% of the business for 37,500 pounds than 40% of the business for 75,000 pounds, the researchers note. The deal was enabled by the “What if . . . ?” expressed in Quinn’s question—the company’s ability to meet its targets within 12 months.

Negotiators are sometimes suspicious of counterparts’ attempts to create value through tradeoffs, fearing they’re trying to take advantage. When we present novel proposals in the form of a hypothetical question, they may seem less demanding. What if your counterpart balks at the hypothetical you’ve proposed? Remind her that you were simply posing a question, and redirect the conversation.

Resource: “Hypothetical Questions as Strategic Devices in Negotiation,” by Diyan Nikolov Grigorov and A. Francisca Snoeck Henkemans. Negotiation Journal, July 2019.

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