When negotiating, keep asking the right questions

In the third in his regular series of articles on effective negotiation, international negotiator, author and trainer, Derek Arden, looks at how asking the right questions can help you get the outcomes you want to achieve. 

The third of my 12 helpful habits of highly effective negotiators is the ability to ask great questions. Put simply, the quality of the questions you ask in a negotiation situation will determine the quality of the answers you get.

Asking high quality questions is so important. They need time to be prepared and should be linked to your goal of the negotiation and the agenda you are going to follow. Structure your questions around well-formed outcomes that you have planned.

I remember when I was working for a major bank, we had to go and ask a high-profile client whether there was any money missing from a trust fund. My colleague Paul asked him the direct question: “Had any money gone missing?” The client replied: “That would be illegal, wouldn’t it?”

A great example of a statement followed by a Yes tag question. A yes tag question is one that influences you to agree with the statement. Paul came back saying he had asked the question and been persuaded all was well. Guess what? Later the trustees found the money had been stolen.

What should Paul have done in these circumstances? Of course, he should have followed up, dug deeper and not been influenced by the yes tag and the answer. Never be put off by strong personalities who answer in a vague way. Keep asking until you are sure.

So, when you get the answers, you consider what is being said, what is not being said and how it is being said. Then you can analyse whether they are being truthful or whether you must follow up. 

Turning to the types of questions, we need to consider a few different types, because there are a few.

Open questions - These are the most powerful. They start with who, what, where, why, when and how. They can best be remembered as “5WH”. Using softeners in your language like, “I am wondering” or “I am curious” before the question, takes the heat out of the question. They are also helpful to drill down further when you are investigating where the other side is coming from and what they want out of the negotiation 

Closed questions - These are used to check the facts, such as saying “You told me you couldn’t go any lower, are you sure that is right?” They elicit yes or no answers. As the person answers, listen to the voice tonality and watch the body language, when you can, to check if you think they are telling the truth.

Yes and no tag questions -  These usually follow a statement, leading the person to either agree or disagree with the statement. For example, “We do all want to achieve a win-win, here don’t we?” 

My final tip on questioning. If in doubt, keep digging with your questions. Don’t do what my colleague Paul did and accept an answer that doesn’t check out. Just re-ask it in a different way. Think about what the fictional TV detective Columbo used to do – he was great at finding new ways of asking questions to get to the truth!

Good luck with your negotiations as always. They will make a massive difference to your results and always remember - “When you keep learning – you keep earning!”

Derek Arden has been working for over 25 years as an international negotiator, author and trainer. Find out more at www.derekarden.co.uk or contact him at derek@derekarden.co.uk