More often than not, it is clear if a negotiation will be successful or not by the quality of questions being asked. Good negotiating questions will surface lots of new information about your counterparty’s worlds, their flexibilities and other interests. In contrast, poor questions will typically make it harder.
The first thing to recognise is that the negotiating dialogue probably begins well before the negotiation formally commences. It is also likely that you will get better answers to probing questions asked during this informal phase of the negotiation. Furthermore, anything you can do to keep the tension low throughout the entire process will make it more likely your counterparties will answer your questions.
The second thing is that you need to have the courage to ask questions and the patience to really listen to the response. Often, your questions may not be answered, but if you listen carefully it is likely you will hear clues by the way your questions are avoided. A good tip here is to summarise what you hear back. If you have anything wrong it gives them a chance to correct your understanding, and also serves to help make sure your counterparties feel you have heard them.
The third thing is that the kind of questions you ask should be questions that open the exploration up rather than closing it down.
Good questions might include:
- What would I need to do for you to be comfortable with XYZ?
- Just suppose we could do ABC, would you be able to do XYZ?
- Help me understand the rationale behind not doing XYZ?
Poor questions might include:
- That doesn’t sound reasonable, could you justify it? (they will try!)
- Is that your best offer? (what if they say ‘yes’?)
Finally, remember there is no point in asking good questions if you don’t use that new understanding to reconstruct your proposals to suit your counterparties worlds. It is quite possible that the best thing to do after hearing lots of new information is to summarise what you heard and leave the room to reconsider what you do next.