Socrates Has Nothing On You
ASSOCIATIONS NOW, July 2007 , Feature
|Summary: Negotiators have to learn what good journalists and good researchers already know: The answers all lie in the questions. Learn how to ask questions that inspire vision in others, not defensiveness.||
If a picture is worth a thousand words, a good question is worth 10,000 words to a skilled negotiator. I’m not kidding, and if I am exaggerating, it’s not by much. Questions are so important, so capable of making or breaking a negotiation, so subtle—and yet so overlooked by most negotiators.
Oh, we ask questions, sure. Lots of them. But do we think about them ahead of time? Are they carefully crafted to produce useful answers? Or are we just out there winging it, hoping to get lucky?
In my experience, most negotiators are just winging it. They don’t understand the value of good questions; they don’t know how to ask good questions; they don’t know how to listen to the answers. As a result, they will never accomplish what they can and should. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the solution is at hand. Take to heart the principles I lay out here, which are designed to improve your questions. Work with them, practice, use them in your negotiations, and you will see the results.
Let’s get the ball rolling with a look at the courtroom grilling that is standard fare in television dramas. The district attorney bores in with the questions: “Isn’t it true, Mr. Smithers, that you bought a Smith & Wesson in June 2006? Isn’t it true that on the night in question…? Isn’t it true that you then climbed out the window and…?”
What’s the point of all these questions? Intimidation: Throw the witness onto the defensive and hope for a Perry Mason-style breakdown and confession right on the stand. Sometimes it works, at least on television. In a negotiation, it never works.
The kind of forceful, leading question that we have seen work on television and that some salespeople have been trained to use in their work (e.g., “Isn’t this what you really want?” or “Is there any reason you wouldn’t buy this sofa?”) is, in fact, the worst possible type of question.
All such intimidating questions serve one immediate, damaging purpose: They throw the person on the other side onto the defense. Sooner or later in the negotiation, such a question will backfire. Sooner or later the other party will react to your “Isn’t this what you want?” question by saying to herself, “Thanks, but I believe I’ll decide whether this is what I really want. Don’t push me.”
The Worst of the Worst
“Can you say yes to my offer?”
This is the worst of all the worst questions. You’re charging hard to drive the customer to a “yes” answer; you’re trying to close the deal and collect the cash. But all you will do with such a question is blow the deal. Ask yourself what you do when asked such a question. You wince. You look for the trick.
Why then would you ever ask such a question of someone with whom you want to strike a deal? Let’s use our heads here. Always put yourself in their shoes. Follow the Golden Rule, or at least a version of it: Never ask a question that you would not welcome hearing yourself.
And not because you’re such a great gal or guy. Because you want deals and agreements, and intimidating the other side with trick-sounding questions is not the way to get them. But inexperienced negotiators ask these questions or the equivalent all the time. It’s sad, almost. You can blow a solid one-hour presentation in 10 seconds with a single ill-chosen question.
“Is there any reason you wouldn’t say yes to this?” No, but give me a moment, because I intend to think of one.
It happens every second of the day, somewhere in the business world, because ill-trained negotiators have been led to believe that they’re supposed to ask such questions in order to push things along quickly.
A (Really) Old-School Method
OK, Camp, you make a good point, but where does Socrates come into this? Simple. The famous Socratic Method is nothing more nor less than using good questions to drive vision and discovery in others. This is how Socrates proceeded with his pupils, asking an easy, “open/vision” question and then using the student’s answer to frame another such question. Each question and answer gave rise to another question—and another possibility. Before the student knew what was happening, his argument was in trouble, and he knew it. But here’s the key. The student wasn’t angry. He had not been intimidated. He had arrived at his new conclusions, apparently on his own.
This is how you want to proceed as a negotiator, using your very own Socratic Method to ask good questions that will drive the vision of the other side to see the value of what you bring to the table. No vision, no good decisions; no good decisions, no deals that stick. It’s pretty simple, when you think about it. You could be selling a mint-condition, vintage Mercedes for $10,000, but if for any reason the other side doesn’t have a vision of this value, you won’t make the sale.
To build this vision, look only to yourself. You do not demand that the other party see that value, for the simple reason that it won’t work. You do not beg them to see that value. That won’t work, either, because they’ll interpret your weakness as a sign that there’s something wrong here, and they’ll be correct. Instead, in the manner of Socrates, you invite them to see that value for themselves, and the way you do this is with questions. They turn on the Discovery Channel, so to speak.
OK, Camp—good point, OK joke, but what’s the difference between a question that will build vision and a bad question that will kill vision? I understand that questions such as “Is there any reason you can’t sign this contract right now?” are counterproductive, but I’d like a little practical guidance on framing good questions.
That’s just what I was hoping you’d ask me. As you will read in my new book, No: The Only Negotiating System You Need for Work and Home, the difference can be boiled down to one that’s easy to remember no matter how high the heat is. There are two types of questions, verb-led questions and interrogative-led questions, and you want to use the latter.
Recall the three bad questions from the first paragraphs here:
- “Isn’t this what you really want?”
- “Is there any reason you wouldn’t buy this sofa?”
- “Can you say yes to my offer?”
Do any of those questions stand a very good chance of building vision in the other party of why they’re negotiating and of the value you bring to the table? I don’t think so. Sure, you have to ask such questions now and then, but the issue on the table now is how best to design questions that build vision—and the answer is by asking questions that are led by interrogatives: who, what, when, where, why, how, and sometimes which. Some of us remember this list drilled into us in grade school. Looking back, I’m not sure what the point was, frankly, but I know what it is now.
We use interrogatives to turn on the “Discovery Channel” in listeners and negotiators. By using interrogatives, we gain entrance into what the folks on the other side are seeing in this negotiation. The interrogative-led questions will paint vision that will move the negotiation forward without the pitfalls of verb-led questions. They don’t challenge the other party. They don’t put the other person on the defensive. They elicit information and build vision. You have to be diligent and careful with all questions—with every word you utter—but the verb-led questions almost all discourage further exploration while appealing to impulse, while interrogative-led questions are a key means of discovery.
Consider the following set of verb-led questions juxtaposed with a corresponding set of interrogative-led questions. In every case, which is better?
- “Is this the biggest issue we face?” versus “What is the biggest issue we face?”
- “Is this proposal tight enough for you?” versus “How can I tighten this proposal for you?”
- “Can we work on delivery dates tomorrow?” versus “When can we work on delivery dates?” or “How important are delivery dates?” or “Where do delivery dates fit in?”
- “Do you think we should bring Mary into the loop now?” versus “Where does Mary fit in?” or “When should we bring Mary into the loop?” or “How does Mary fit into the picture?”
- “Are you trying to make me angry?” versus “How do you want me to take that?”
Of course, you can’t just robotically rely on the rule about interrogative-led questions and believe that all your worries are over. The specific words you use are all important. “How much did you invest in this piece of junk?” Not a good question—and you know it. So, use your head. Let’s try a substitute for the loaded phrase piece of junk.
“How much did you invest in this technology?” Much better—depending on how you say the word “technology.” Say it a certain way and it’s innocuous. Say it another way—sarcastically—and the “piece of junk” implication hangs in the air. So use your head, please. Be disciplined. Maybe the technology is junk. Maybe it’s pathetic that they’ve spent $3 million on this terrible software. Maybe it just makes you mad, and you want to be sure they know what saps they are. Well, fine, but act out in private. Joke about it with your colleagues over beer. At the negotiating table, exercise some discipline—and nurture.
This Is About Negotiation. Did He Just Say “Nurture”?
That’s right, nurture. You can ask the exact same question with a nurturing tone, maybe even with some nurturing words, or with something less. You can say the word “technology” in quite a few different ways, each conveying a slightly different meaning to the listener. You know what they are—and so does the listener. Make sure you pick one that nurtures.
Wait a minute! Am I just some sort of touchy-feely negotiation coach? Not at all. I’m as hardheaded and practical as they come. That’s why I nurture when I ask questions. That’s why you must as well. If building vision on the other side requires that they see what you have already seen, then you’re going to have to soften the blow as you ask the questions that build that vision. You cannot hit them over the head with the truth. They’ll go defensive. They’ll blame the messenger—you.
Recall the bad verb-led question, “Is this the biggest issue we face?” We replaced that with the much better, “What’s the biggest issue we face?” And we can do better yet: “It’s clear that everyone has been working very hard, but right now, what is the biggest issue we face?”
Those little phrases help, believe me. Here are the other interrogative-led questions made even better with a bit of nurturing attached:
- “No, Pete, I don’t mind hearing that. I want you to tell me what’s wrong. How can I tighten this proposal for you?”
- “I don’t really see that they’re much of an issue but—how important are delivery dates?”
- “I know you’re the team leader, Franklin. Do we have everyone onboard? How does Mary fit into the picture?”
- “I know this has been a difficult situation for both of us, Jack, but how do you want me to take that?”
Quite simply, almost all of us prefer talking with and dealing with people who make us comfortable. Who are these people? Nurturers. Alas, most of us are not so naturally gifted in this regard as a Ronald Reagan or a Colin Powell. I know I’m not. I’ve had to spend my coaching career getting better, and I am getting better. So can you.
Asking good questions is not rocket science. Negotiators have been taught for decades to ask open-ended questions, and interrogative-led questions are simply one type of open-ended question. I emphasize the “interrogative-led” concept over the “open-ended” concept because I’ve found that it’s easier to understand and to follow in the heat of a negotiation. Generally speaking, the negotiator who frames interrogative-led questions is on the right track and will have better success negotiating. So forget “tactics” and remember Socrates.
Jim Camp is CEO of Coach2100, Inc. and the author of No: The Only Negotiating System You Need for Work and Home, released last month by Crown Business. Read more at www.startwithno.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Related Sidebar:How to Say “No” (Without Being a Jerk)
|Rate this item:||Comments:|
To order reprints of any article in its original format, visit Scoopreprintsource.com
Focus on Finance: Optimizing the Financial Team
June 27, 2013
Executive Issue Briefing: What Are You Mandated Under the ACA?
July 9, 2013
International Delegation to Australia
July 14, 2013
|View full calendar|
ASAE U Online
Models & Samples
|Find a Job
Post a Job
Board of Directors
Standards of Conduct
Endorsed Business Solutions
American Society of Association Executives™ (ASAE), 1575 I St. NW, Washington, DC 20005
© Copyright 2011 ASAE. All rights reserved.
|Social Media | RSS | Advertise | Mobile Edition | Site Map | Contact Us | Privacy Notice|