What are the right kind of questions to ask in a negotiation?

In a negotiation each party enters into the negotiation with a position and series of interests. How we explore those interests goes a long way towards reaching a mutually acceptable alternative with the other party. Asking key questions appropriately makes a real difference in the outcome.

Our initial response to a loaded question is to react defensively. For example let’s say you and your partner are considering going with firm A or firm B to do something for you. You like firm A and your partner likes firm B. Asking a questions like “don’t you think firm B with less experience is riskier? Do you think we can afford to take that risk?” would quite likely put your partner on the defensive. This would likely cause your partner to become more entrenched, and this would likely be less conducive towards working towards an amenable solution that you both could live with.

However, I want to propose you use something like the Columbo technique. I have shared ideas relative to the IRS on the application of the Columbo technique previously. In short, I am asking that you take a more open minded perspective. Rather than thinking you are smarter than the other party, and that you have all of the answers, consider truly asking open ended questions to explore where the other party is coming from. You need to have a mindset that you really want to help understand where the other party is coming from if you want to be allowed to possibly influence the outcome. This is true at work and at home or in other venues if you really want to work with the other party.

For example with the situation above with you and your partner, what if instead you asked something like, “we each seem to have different preferences relating to firms A and B. Why do you like firm B? What impressed you about firm B? Why do you think Firm B would be a better fit for us than firm A?

This approach accomplishes several things:

  • It allows the questions to be presented in neutral terms
  • It allows the other party to provide a thoughtful answer
  • It allows the other party to be listened to

You may even learn some things you had not thought of regarding the decision making process. These three points really matter, but especially the third bullet with allowing the other party to be listened to. Relationships matter. Relationships are built on listening. Since our brains are 98% emotional and 2% rationale it is very important that we be particularly oriented towards building a relationship and listening. It has been shown that once we have been listened to we are far more receptive towards listening to the other party. Knowing this, asking the inquisitive open ended questions such as the example above may very well allow you to have a bigger impact with the other party. In this example the other party is your partner. What about someone else that may be harder to negotiate with?

What about with a third party or someone who is difficult to work with? The previous link offers ten things for you to consider starting with your own de-escalation. Both my blog and the Harvard Program on Negotiations offer some constructive ideas when working with difficult people during a negotiation. In short the same principles apply. The keys are to de-escalate yourself, help the other party to de-escalate and then apply the same techniques presented above. This is easy in theory, but this can be difficult in application. The key is to realize where you are coming from. Work to de-escalate yourself first. Go in with an open mind. Have a plan. Practice the plan. Apply the techniques learned from the practice in the actual application. Consider a role play with a mentor or really thinking out the steps before the negotiation with a difficult party. Prior planning and using these simple techniques can go a long way towards asking the right questions and having a successful negotiation.

Michael Gregory, NSA, ASA, CVA, MBA and a Qualified Mediator with the Minnesota Supreme Court is an international speaker that helps others resolve conflict, negotiate winning solutions and inspire leaders.  Mike services clients business to IRS, business to business and within businesses. On point resources are available online at Mike’s web site and check out the blog. Mike may be contacted directly at mg@mikegreg.com or at (651) 633-5311.