20 Questions

‘Tis the season for questions.

I am a big fan of asking questions during a negotiation.  As a means of gathering information, asking questions is about 10 times easier than being imprinted with the skills of a covert spy, breaking into the NSA and stealing a planted file, all while running in high heels.  (er, “spoiler.”)

But not all questions are created equal.  No, I’m not talking about the old “there are no stupid questions” adage.  (There are, by the way.  There are.)  I’m talking about the fact that different types of questions can do different things.  And knowing both how to ask them and how to respond can help you have more productive negotiations. Here are a two of my favorites.


Most of the time when we are asked a question, we listen, try to discern the information the questioner is seeking and respond with information we deem relevant based on our understanding.  This is socially acceptable and we are usually rewarded with an enticing behavior shaping treat that encourages us to repeat the process the next time a question is asked.

Because we are so simply wired, it means that when we are primed with questions we do want to answer, we’re more likely to answer questions we don’t want to answer.

Remember the school yard game where some jerk (usually me) asked you a series of questions about oranges and then asked you what color the sky is? And how you, despite your most fervent wishes, answered orange? Same concept.

Except you don’t really want to trick your negotiation counterpart into agreeing to something (it will be a temporary victory; the deal will die). But you do want to know more about the “how” and “why” of their decision making process and interests.

Asking a couple of non-confrontational questions before asking “What’d you pay the last guy?” or “How much do you have budgeted for the project?” increases the likelihood of getting the information you want.

Helper Questions

Do you ever listen to a news cast and wonder why in the world the anchor is asking such a wildly obvious question?  About 80% of the time, it’s because it’s a stupid question.  But 20% of the time the anchor is asking something to which he or she knows the answer in order to help the interviewee provide information that will help folks better understand the topic being discussed.  (The weekend NPR shows offer many, sometimes maddening, examples of this.)

Helper questions most often come up in groups of people, so you’ll commonly hear them in meetings or conference calls. This is because the person asking the question is often using you to argue a point with someone else in the room.  But if you’re not listening carefully, the question might sound confrontational. And if you attack a helper question you can lose an ally.

So when you hear “Isn’t it true that…” or “If we do X, Y and Z, as you’ve suggested, how do we deal with A?” think “Helper Question!”

The question is helpful because it allows you to make your argument one more time in a slightly different way. And you want those opportunities. They come off much better than you continually waving and saying “Hey guys? Guys? Did I mention I’m really good? Really. For instance….”

Of course, use your common sense.  If Gul Dukat is asking you “Isn’t it true that…” chances are he’s not trying to help you.  That doesn’t mean you can’t take advantage of confrontational questions.   Confrontational questions can give you a load of insight into what the other party is focused on and that can help you find new ways of addressing their interests.  Listen; pause; ask follow up questions.

Categories: Negotiation Strategy


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