One bit of advice that is common on the negotiation lecture circuit is that a good negotiator is one who asks questions. I have given that advice myself, many times. But what do we mean by suggesting that it is important to ask questions? What kind of questions and how should they be asked? The answer is that it depends on why you are asking.
It is possible to ask questions that are pointed and challenging. It is also possible to ask questions that are informative and guiding. And you can ask questions when you are attempting to learn something. Each of these types of questions can be asked in a variety of ways.
Everyone knows about pointed, challenging questions. These are questions such as “Why did you do thus and so?” Or “What did you mean by this or that?” The effect of a pointed question, put as a challenge, is that the opponent senses–probably with good reason–that you are not really interested in the answer. Your opponent will know your real reason for asking is to win a debating point. Although sometimes it is necessary to hone in on a particular issue, challenging questions usually put people on the defensive.
Informative or guiding questions might be phrased like this: “When you analyzed this situation, how did you think it would come out?” Or “Should we be considering x and y variables as part of this solution?” Although not as directly challenging, questions like this can also evoke a defensive response. They can be valuable, however, in ferreting out how other parties think about the dispute and its likely resolution.
Asking questions in an attempt to learn something is similar to making a medical diagnosis. The kind of question you ask makes all the difference. If you are already sure of what the problem is, you can feel comfortable in asking guiding questions. Guiding questions are aimed at the aspect of the dispute that you have decided is the most important. But if you are not sure about the scope and nature of the problem and you would like to gain some insight from the perspective of other parties, a different type of question is called for.
That different type of question is one that is open-ended; a question that encourages the other parties to tell their story. Why would you ask such a question? You ask open-ended questions to hear a comprehensive answer, spoken in their own words. You ask open-ended questions to give yourself an opportunity to rethink how you have framed the negotiation. The reason you want to hear their story is that the story itself will contain clues and cues to how the dispute can be resolved.
Even when negotiators invite story-telling through open-ended questions, they sometimes lose the benefit by cutting off the conversation. There is a tendency to want to jump right in with a rebuttal or solution rather than hear out the other party. Negotiators who are good at listening use a variety of techniques. One negotiator I know takes extensive notes while the other party is telling their story. Another interjects comments such as “ah huh,” “I am following you,” or even “Got it.” These have the effect of keeping the other party talking.
While they are talking you are learning. Answers to questions help you learn things that you otherwise have no way of knowing by pre-negotiation prep. One example of what you might learn is whether there are other problems, outside of the immediate dispute, that are of concern to the other party. Maybe you can help them solve the other problems, which in turn can help you resolve the current dispute.
Both pointed/challenging questions and informative/guiding questions are used to focus a negotiation when the main issues are known and a resolution is clear to the negotiator. However, what if you want to learn whether or not there is a way through a complex dispute? Remember to use open-ended questions, because the stories you hear will contain invaluable information for a possible resolution.
Berton Lee Lamb