Let's Talk About It
One way to look at negotiation is as an extended volley of Q&A. In the early game, your thoughtful queries will help break the ice, assess character and gauge leverage. In the middle game, they'll help you extract information, generate alternatives and focus the open issues. And in the end game, you will use them skillfully to persuade, pin down and close.
The open-ended question is the closest thing deal-makers have to a Swiss Army knife. These are questions that begin with who, what, where, when, how or why. Because they cannot be answered with a simple yes or no, they will encourage your opponent to talk and, hopefully, give you strategic information. They are valuable at all stages of a deal, but especially so at the beginning, when each side is sizing up the other. Ask them innocently, if you can. Use the power of silence. Listen to the answers carefully. With luck, your opponent will tell you far more than he or she should.
As real discussions begin, questions become more precise. Ask "why" or "why not" to uncover underlying concerns. Ask "how" to explore your opponent's methods of doing business. Ask "what if" to explore alternatives. Let your natural curiosity guide you. "How exactly does that calculation work?" "Would you mind giving me an example?" "Hmmm . . . how does this deduction differ from that deduction?" It's OK to probe, just be able to know when you hit a nerve. Here are some other effective queries: "Why is that fair?" "What would you do in my position?" "Are you the one who will make the final decision?" "What kinds of deals are you making with others?"
When talks conclude, negotiators begin to sound like salespeople. Questions are designed to seal a deal. "If I make this last concession, can we shake on it?" "Would you like it in harvest gold or tropical pink?" "Shall I have my lawyer send your lawyer signature copies?" As David Mamet wrote in his play Glengarry Glen Ross, "Always be closing."
Although there is no canon or custom about which questions to ask when, certain lines of inquiry will keep you from getting to yes. Unless you know how to get your way by blustering, don't use questions to insult, threaten, accuse or show how smart you are. Loaded questions and other indirect jabs are not particularly helpful either. Just as important as which question to ask is how you ask it. Negotiation is not interrogation. Watch your tone. Remember, if you give attitude, you'll probably get attitude.
Questions are more powerful than answers. I agree with writer James Thurber: "It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers." An answer you can usually find. But beware: If you don't ask the right questions, I guarantee you won't know what hit you.