Master negotiators ask 3-4 questions, not “lots and lots of questions”…

A popular tip in negotiation and sales training is to ask “lots and lots of questions”. The underlying premise is that the more questions you ask, the more likely you are to end up with more and better (more accurate, recent, relevant etc.) information. You are also less likely to go wrong as a result of assuming too much. Indeed some trainers and coaches state that asking “lots and lots of questions” is an effective way to validate your assumptions. The impulse behind this advice is fundamentally sound – which is to discover and clearly see the realities driving, impacting, influencing, and surrounding the sale/negotiation. For instance, it is certainly more effective to find out who the decision maker is instead of assuming that a particular person is (or is not) the decision maker. However, despite being well-intentioned, this is ineffective advice. Let me clarify that “asking questions” is not ineffective. Asking “lots and lots of questions”, is. It’s risky. Doing so backfires, often. Remember that for most people, negotiation is stressful. It can feel as though one is chewing glass. You must do all you can to assist your adversary feel safe, secure, emotionally comfortable, and relaxed … which is exactly what the advice to ask many questions prevents. I would like to help you see why this is so, and to suggest what to do instead.

What are you engaged in when you negotiate?

A negotiation is the human effort to reach agreement between two or more parties with all parties having the right to veto. “The right to veto what?”, you ask. Well, anything and everything – to veto what is said, discussed, and done. It’s the right to disagree, to say “no”. You and your adversaries have the right and freedom to say “no” when you are negotiating. All of you are engaged in a free and unconstrained effort to explore the possibility of building an agreement. If that possibility exists, and all of you wish to, you are free to build one. (Hopefully you will build one that moves each party’s efforts forward.) Each party in a negotiation must be there freely, and each party must be free to reject or embrace anything – if the negotiation is to remain one. If not, well … all bets are off.

How must you negotiate?

Simply put, by having a conversation with your adversary. A negotiation is – it must be – a conversation. A conversation is necessarily pressure-free and unconstrained. It’s not an effort to prevail over the other; to beat him/her/them up; to win at the expense of the other; to “teach them a lesson”; to squeeze out information; to trick him/her etc. People have experienced having their words, actions, behaviors, and decisions used against them. In business deals, they have had the experience of having information they have provided used against them. They have experienced having the information their competitors have provided, used against them, and vice versa. And so, asking too many questions threatens others and makes them wary and suspicious of your motives. It causes emotional pressure to build up, and emotional barriers to get thrown up – with predictable consequences. It creates mistrust and suspicion; provokes defensiveness and/or aggression; causes others to shoot from the hip or tune out; creates vicious cycles of action and reaction; and transforms the negotiation into a battle of wills or a game of shadow boxing. You never get to see or speak about the real issues driving the negotiation. You keep dancing around them. Directly addressing them can be too threatening. Any or all of these can derail the negotiation.

So, that advice is misguided because:

• It transforms a conversation into an interrogation which risks shutting down the conversation
• It creates or heightens the perception and feeling of being threatened
• It creates the perception that you are out to take advantage of your adversary
• It provokes reactiveness
• It makes an emotionally taxing event even more stressful
• It creates too much emotional pressure and too many emotional barriers
• It risks (derailing) the negotiation

What must you do instead?

That’s simple! Ask 3-4 interrogative-led, discovery-creating, vision-building questions. Your questions have only 2 purposes – both of which relate to vision:
(i) To help you discover and see the realities impacting, influencing, and surrounding the negotiation.
(ii) To help those you negotiate with, discover and see the same.

You must see, and so must the respected other party – if both of you are to make, and freely embrace, effective decisions. These decisions will move the negotiation forward, and keep your efforts focused, aligned, and disciplined.

When asking questions, remember less is more – both in terms of the number of questions, as well as the number of words in each question. Keep your questions to 5-6 words, or less. 3-4 words is better than 5-6. Jim Camp addressed the issue of how to structure and deliver questions in his books. He points out that it is both an art and a science. Please spend time carefully reading and rereading the respective chapters. Then, practice what Jim outlines. Practice, daily, in low risk situations. In this as in every aspect of mastering negotiation, perfect practice makes perfect. Often, asking a few questions is combined with other key behaviors such as nurturing, connecting, reversing, and 3+. Direct your attention to clearly see what you do see, do not see, and must see. Direct your adversaries’ attention to what they see, do not see, and must see. In that way, you’ll always be negotiating on the basis of vision.

Keep it conversational – regardless the issues being negotiated, or who you are negotiating with. Keep your words, your delivery, and your body language open, honest, calm, relaxed, and respectful. Keeping it conversational does not guarantee you will reach an agreement – nor should it. Instrumentalizing a conversation in order to “sign the deal” is stupid and ineffective. It will ensure it stops being a conversation. Discovering that you should not enter into an agreement in this negotiation, or not enter into one now, is often just as valuable and as important as reaching one (now). And that remains the mark of the master negotiator.

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