Your negotiation journey - part six: the art of questioning

Updated: Sep 23, 2020

Constantin Papadopoulos is a freelance B2B marketing & sales consultant.

The following nine techniques/skills will improve the outcome of your negotiations. While these techniques are simple and effective, your negotiation success will come from applying them regularly. The best part of these techniques is that you can use them in your daily life. So let's review the sixth technique.

The art of questioning

You can read about the history of punctuation to try to understand how questions have become such an important part of the way we communicate. The question mark symbol has its own history that you can read here. What I always found fascinating about this symbol, it somewhat resembles a human ear. While this may be simply random, it reminds what questions are for in negotiations - an opportunity to listen.

Now that it is clear that questions at their best get your counterpart to speak, what types of questions are they available to you:

Closed-ended questions

This type of question seeks a specific and short response from the counterpart. The response's scope is narrow and thus should be used in very specific cases:

  • take a decision: Wouldn't you agree to this proposal?

  • make a statement: Don't you agree with this position?

  • receive information: when do you need the products delivered?

Jim Camp also refers to these questions as verb-led questions. In his words, "there are only two reasons to ask such a question: if you already know the answer, or if you're near the very end of the negotiation and you have to really bore in." The informed reader will have noticed the difference between the first two question occurrences vs. the last one which isn't a verb-led question. Unlike Jim Camp, I do not classify between interrogative led vs. verb led. "Who", "when", "where", and "what" are closer to closed-ended questions. Thus, in your negotiation process concentrate the usage of the type of the closed-ended question towards the end, when it is about planning the next steps and you have received all the information you needed.

Open-ended questions

When an open-ended question is being asked, the discussion partner is offered to become active, it is an invitation to speak. This type of question should be used at the beginning of the conversation. It enables to:

  • identify the underlying interests of your negotiation partner,

  • resolve a complex problem,

  • disclose disagreements.

For experienced negotiators, open-ended questions can be seen as counter-productive. Why? If left too broad, the question will let the conversation partner take the lead over the discussion. It has happened to me more often than needed and I felt trapped into listening to a long monologue. The secret ingredient to an effective open-ended question is a rapid realization question, namely one that can narrow the discussion's scope. Here is a short example:

  • How was your experience with our services? An open-ended question to start the conversation

  • Well, where should I start, the total experience was a disaster!

  • Oh, I'm sorry to hear this, when did your experience start to go wrong? First realization question

  • It all started with the first shipment which arrived late and in a poor condition!

  • This is indeed unfortunate. Wouldn't you please describe me the package's condition upon arrival? Second realization question

  • Well, the processors were not packed properly and we had to reship half of them...

  • Thank you for your precious answers, how could we repair the damage done? Now that you have received the sought after information, you can broaden the scope and move to the next question.

Calibrated questions: how am I supposed to do that?

Questions are also a useful tool to respond to unrealistic expectations from the counterpart. While this thematic is discussed in depth by Chris Voss in Never split the difference, what I can recommend here is to simply turn the table when faced with unrealistic requests. Asking the counterpart to elaborate on how you should lower the price below your reserved price, or accept an increase in the listing fee will help you uncover valuable information.

Questions are at the center of negotiation. Using them wisely will lead you to uncover the real interests or needs of your counterpart. The valuable information received will enable you to understand what is needed and thus adjust your offering to me the expressed expectations. Now that you know how to behave at the negotiation table, let's review what your counterpart can do that could destabilize you - dealing with aggression.

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