Sharpen Your Questioning Skills

Learn how to uncover your counterpart's needs to gain the edge in negotiating.

To create a win-win outcome, you need to know your counterpart’s needs, wants and goals. Like a detective, you search for any information that will help you better understand your counterpart’s motivations and true intentions. While you are involved in the questioning process, pay close attention, not only to your counterpart’s words, but also to her actions, reactions, mannerisms and gestures, as they will offer many clues to your counterpart’s thoughts.

Skillful questioning provides you with the maximum amount of information possible for developing your negotiation strategy. Unfortunately, except perhaps in law school, questioning skills are seldom taught. Asking good questions in negotiations can be a challenging proposition. The guidelines offered in this article will help you decide what questions to ask, how to word them and when to ask them.

12 Reasons Why People Ask Questions

It is in your best interest to ask a lot of questions when negotiating. The following 12 purposes for questioning will help you see why.

1. Gain Information

Obtaining information is the most obvious reason for asking questions. You try to fill in gaps where you lack information. When you do not have all the answers, or when you are not sure whether you have the right answers, ask. Don’t assume anything when you are negotiating.

Some negotiators believe you should not ask anything of your counterpart unless you already know the answer. We do not subscribe to this philosophy. We often ask questions because we do not know the answer! However, there is a time when you should not ask a question to acquire information: If the stakes are really high and negative information could be devastating to your side, don’t ask, since you may not be prepared to live with the answer.

2. Clarify or Verify Information

When your counterpart provides you with information, it is important to clarify and verify that information. Clarifying questions are usually aimed at answering who, what, when, where, why or how. Questions such as “How have you handled the delivery in the past?” or “You will be delivering this product at no charge, won’t you?” help clarify and verify deal points that if not addressed, could leave you at a disadvantage.

3. Check Understanding and Level of Interest

How much is your counterpart interested in the outcome of the negotiation? You may want to evaluate his level of commitment to specific deal points, for example, by asking if he would be willing to take a specified amount less than his asking price. Or you may wish to uncover how technically sound your counterpart’s knowledge of the topic is.

4. Determine Behavioral Style

What type of person is your counterpart? Where is she coming from? Is she an experienced negotiator? An honest person? Decisive? Thorough? Questions that reveal this kind of information will influence how you negotiate. Different people require different strategies.

5. Encourage Participation

Any time you ask your counterpart a question and let her talk, you gain a twofold benefit: First, your counterpart will like you better. Second, you will learn more about your counterpart than she will learn about you. It is especially important to get your counterpart to talk whenever you’ve said something she didn’t agree with or understand, since letting her talk will have a calming effect. Also, you will be supplied with more information about your counterpart’s needs.

One of the most difficult people to negotiate with is the counterpart who sits there, stares at you as you do all the talking, and answers every question with a simple “yes” or “no.”

With this individual, you will find it in your best interest to talk a lot less and ask more open-ended questions. (See “Two Main Types of Questions” on page 5.)

6. Give Information

You may want to give your counterpart information that will help her better understand your needs and goals. For example, you might ask: “Did you know that a very similar piece of exercise equipment is being sold for 20 percent less by your competitor?” This type of question can also be used as a test to see whether your counterpart recognizes if your information is correct.

7. Start Someone Thinking

Questions that ask someone’s opinion are a great source of information. Asking for people’s opinions also tells them you are interested in them and what they have to say. For example, when negotiating the salary for a potential employee, you might ask, “When you think about a great company to work for, what attributes come to mind?” The more you can get your counterpart to talk, the more information you will have for planning your strategy.

8. Bring Attention to the Subject

Some counterparts have a tough time getting to the point. Maybe they are intentionally avoiding a sensitive topic. Appropriate questions can help keep the conversation moving along and heading toward your goal. Salespeople are often taught to find out something personal about a prospect and use this information as a starting point for their presentation.

Talking about the personal side is fine, but eventually you will need to change your questioning pattern and get the answers for the real reasons you are meeting. This requires asking questions that focus attention back on your desired subject. For example: “Can we get back to the salary issue and benefits package once again? Is it possible to increase the starting salary by $5,000 so I can maintain parity with my current benefits package?”

9. Reach Agreement

Questions can determine your counterpart’s true aspirations or readiness to confirm agreement. Suppose a seller is asking $250,000 for his house. Because it needs landscaping and a new roof, you ask whether he is willing to take $240,000. The value of this type of question is that the answers let you know how far apart your goals are from your counterpart’s.

10. Increase Reception to Your Ideas

It has been said that people like your ideas a lot better when they feel they have come up with those ideas. In other words, giving your counterpart the opportunity to tell you that something needs to be done is a lot better than your saying it needs to be done. For example, we recently had a client call to say a lot of managers in her company were struggling with difficult employees. We asked, “Do you think the managers would benefit from a training session on coaching for improved performance?” We were convinced this would be beneficial but posed the idea as a question to give the client the opportunity to advocate the training.

11. Reduce Tension

Negotiations can become tense. When things go wrong, asking questions to gain further information about your counterpart’s viewpoint can be helpful. The added information may enable you to restructure the negotiation. For example, if you are meeting opposition when discussing the idea of a new program you want to implement at your facility, you might say, “Every time we talk about this new program, you seem adamantly opposed. Can you share a little about why?”

Another type of question that reduces tension is one that introduces humor into a situation. Recently, a friend was trying to negotiate an extra 2 days of paid vacation per year. When the boss gave her a blunt “no,” the room became thick with tension. Her timely response, “Uh-oh, does this mean I should cancel my European tour?” accompanied by a smile, helped everyone relax.

12. Give Positive Strokes or Build Rapport

Simply put, a positive-strokes question says, “I want to make you feel important.” Sometimes you even know the answer and still ask the question. The expression of caring that you give your counterpart is what matters. Suppose your counterpart has received three phone calls from complaining customers and had two employee interruptions during your 15-minute meeting. You might ask, “Are you having a tough day?” Or “With all those interruptions, isn’t it amazing that you get anything done?”

Keys to Proper Questioning

The way you ask a question is as important as its content. To gain the maximum information about your counterpart’s needs and motivations, you have to structure your questions carefully. Following are several key points that will help you gain accurate information.

1. Have a Goal and a Questioning Plan

When you are negotiating, it is important to have a goal in mind and a questioning plan that will help you achieve that goal. What type of information will help you make a good decision? How will you go about getting that information? Will you be direct? Will you disguise your questions? Asking direct or closed-ended questions is most helpful when you are trying to confirm a deal point or gain a concession. Open-ended or indirect questions are useful for gaining as much information as possible.

A questioning plan will put you in the action mode and your counterpart in the reaction mode. With your counterpart reacting, you are in control of the negotiation and in a better position to accomplish your goals.

2. Know Your Counterpart

The more you can find out about your counterpart, the better you can target your questions. For example, some people have a strong need to build a relationship and do not like to address task-related issues before relationship issues have been addressed. Most often, a relationship-oriented person opens every conversation by asking how you and your kids are, and maybe discussing the weather or the score in last night’s baseball game. The task- oriented person wants to get right down to business. Respecting your counterpart’s style creates a win-win atmosphere.

3. Move From the Broad to the Narrow

In the question sequence, it is helpful to start with the broad questions. Then, as you gain answers to those, you can refine and hone your questions to eventually yield specific information.

4. Use Proper Timing

We’ve all occasionally asked the wrong question at the wrong time. It is important to be sensitive to your counterpart’s needs and feelings. If your counterpart finds your question offensive, two things happen: (1) You do not gain the information you would have with a properly timed question; and (2) your counterpart may become reluctant to negotiate with you in the future. Asking your husband how his diet is going while he is eating dessert is an example of bad timing.

5. Build on Previous Responses

This point is similar to the third point. As you gain more information, you can make your questions more specific. Negotiators who use this technique are always listening for information they can dive into for more clarification. The more information they have, the better decisions they can make.

6. Ask Permission to Ask a Question

Asking permission is the polite thing to do. It is also effective because most people will not refuse you if you ask permission. Finally, it starts the swing toward agreement. Once your counterpart has granted you permission, he is more likely to give you a complete answer.

7. After You Ask a Question, Stop Talking and Listen

Novice negotiators are uncomfortable with silence. Silence is a void, and they feel an overwhelming need to fill it. In fact, some negotiators will even try to answer the question for their counterpart if there is no response. When you ask a question, enjoy the golden silence and give your counterpart ample time to formulate a response.

8. Take Notes

If you are going to ask questions, take notes. You do not have to take everything down word for word, but capture enough detail to enable you to recreate the negotiation later, recalling the main points your counterpart made. Taking notes demonstrates that you care about your counterpart’s thoughts and are thorough in your investigations, and allows you to recall information as the negotiation proceeds.

Knowledge and Practice Make Perfect

A successful negotiator knows the wants, needs and motivations of his counterpart and has a thorough knowledge of the topic of negotiation. The easiest and quickest way to uncover the necessary information is through skillful questioning. With practice you will find yourself asking better questions and gaining increasingly valuable information.

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Peter Stark

IDEA Author/Presenter
Peter Stark is the president of Peter Barron Stark & Associates, which specializes in working wi... more less

Jane S. Flaherty

IDEA Author/Presenter
January 2004

© 2004 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

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