Using questions to help move the negotiation along is closely associated with the goal of staying on message. A key element in achieving success in negotiations is to stay on message and not fall into the trap of blurting out a rejoinder whenever someone makes an accusatory, harsh, or emotional statement. This is not always easy, especially when another party’s posturing may be designed to make you angry and elicit your negative reaction. Sometimes it is best to not say anything at all, to just sit there in silence and allow the absurdity of their statement or position to sink in. Then when you do speak, make a point to respond within the context of the discussions at hand—not their triggering statement – and continue to stay on message. This sort of calm, measured, non-emotional response is better than cross-accusing or challenging another party and, in the long run, will work wonders to bolster your credibility and earn your opponent’s trust and respect.
There is an art to staying on message and it involves asking open-ended questions that will allow the other parties to consider and respond to alternatives. This is so much more useful than simply repeating the same rationale over and over again. Questions might begin with “ What are the alternatives we have yet to evaluate? or, What else is possible…?” After this opening, a negotiator might raise a new question for the parties to consider. Perhaps one negotiator would answer “I don’t think it is possible” and another might say “Well, I don’t know, it may be possible.” The immediate temptation might be to say something like “There you see…!” But come back to the theme by suggesting a way to begin the discussion like: “Let’s test that idea.” This is a way of offering a framework for the discussion that will allow the negotiating parties to expand their shared understanding of the issues and facts and discover for themselves a way to create a solution that had not previously been considered.
Of course, to stay on message and effectively ask questions requires that you have developed a negotiation strategy before deliberations began – a strategy consistent with the message you want to convey. As the negotiations progress and you gain a deeper understanding of the facts, issues, needs and perspectives of the other parties, you may need to modify your strategy and alter your message. If you have stayed on message throughout the negotiations and responded rather than reacted to tactics designed to throw you off balance, your opponents will understand that your new message has value and is worth their consideration.