“Ignorance killed the cat, curiosity was framed…”
The source of this quote is unknown, but it illustrates an important truth for all negotiators. Asking questions is the key to achieving mutual understanding. Of course, the question may be the key but listening to the responses is entering the door of ‘knowing’. Negotiators do not have a perfect understanding of the other party’s issues, priorities, concerns and inhibitions when they prepare for a negotiation. This forces them to make assumptions about these important matters. When they meet with their counterparty, questions are necessary to validate their assumptions.
After thorough preparation, all parties should have a long list of questions. However, when the negotiation commences it should not be an arms race of questioning or an inquisition. The negotiation should be like a good conversation which ebbs and flows as each party in turn talks and listens.
Interestingly, research on the art of successful conversations shows that the most valuable questions are, in fact, second-order questions - that is, follow up questions to the initial query. So the other party answers “Delivery date is important for us.” A suitable second-order question would be, “We understand that delivery date is important for you - can you explain why?” Another follow up could include, “Are there any other issues other than the delivery date which are important for you?”. “What would be the implications for you with late delivery?”
The importance of these follow-up questions is that they demonstrate that you have actually listened to their answers to the initial question and that you want to know more. You are demonstrating curiosity and if you add, “ We now understand how that would be difficult for you to deal with,” you have demonstrated empathy. Given your curiosity and empathy, it is reasonable to expect the other party will reciprocate with their questions for you.
The empathy and the beginning of understanding will be quickly destroyed by you failing to answer their questions. Information is the lifeblood of negotiations and skilled practitioners know what to disclose and when to be careful. The key question to ask yourself is whether providing that information will move them towards you or push them away.
Not all questions are good. “Do you think I am stupid?” or “How can you justify that price?” will not lead to greater understanding or empathy. Giving them an opportunity to insult you and entrench their current position will not advance any negotiation. Far better to plead ignorance or slowness yourself by asking, “Let me understand…….”, “Look I missed that - could you run through that again?” These questions slow down the rate of information exchange to enable you to both understand and to process information.
Remember the cat has nine lives, time enough for plenty of questions.
Want further insight into the importance of words in negotiation? Check out part 1 here.