Ask better questions

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

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

A key barrier to gathering information through questioning is 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, Edward Miles writes in Negotiation Journal .

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 rather to substantiate their own point of view or challenge their counterparts’ arguments.

Questioning taps into the fundamental conflict at the heart of negotiation between the need to share information to uncover valuable trade-offs and the risk of sharing information that could be used against you.

Questioning can cause negotiators to feel threatened even when no threat was intended.

“The question that is asked,” Miles writes, “is not necessarily the question that is heard.”

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

Negotiators may be unsure whether the motives behind a question are cooperative or competitive. 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, Miles observes, because powerful negotiators typically have more freedom to resist undesired questioning and even walk away from the negotiation altogether.

Here are three pieces of advice on how to ask questions that will elicit complex answers and improve the likelihood of reaching a mutually beneficial agreement.

Lean toward open questions

Questions can be categorised in different ways, but the most basic distinction is whether a question is “closed” or “open.”

Open questions often begin with the words “who,” “whose,” “what,” “when,” “which,” “why” or “how.” By contrast, closed questions begin with such words as “did,” “can,” “will” or “is,” typically prompting brief, yes-or-no answers.

When it comes to information gathering, Miles writes, open questions are generally superior to closed questions.

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.

Closed questions, however, can help you control the conversation when you need a straight answer. Because closed questions tend to elicit limited information and discourage back-and-forth dialogue, however, open questions are generally preferable, particularly in the early stages of negotiation when parties know little about one another’s interests, needs and priorities.

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), cited by Miles, Charles Stewart and William Cash describe numerous “probes,” some of which can be usefully applied to negotiation.

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.

Conversely, you can use a silence probe: Rather than rushing to fill the silence after your counterpart has spoken, 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.

An information probe is a follow-up question that asks for added or clarifying information following a response that you judge to be incomplete.

A summary probe involves summarising a counterpart’s responses to more than one question. A clearinghouse probe seeks to gather any relevant information that the other party has not yet explained about a given issue or issues.

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.

Avoid asking leading questions or loaded questions that convey a particular bias or point of view, advises Professor Linda L. Putnam of Texas A&M University in College Station.

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, Putnam says, their question seems less intrusive and confrontational.

© The New York Times 2013

© 2013 Harvard University

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.




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