Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:32 pm
Question: Is there a way to probe and find out the other party’s real wants and needs without them becoming defensive?
Response: The standard answer you hear most often to this question is if you ask the right questions and listen intently, the other party will tell you what you want to hear. This is a half-truth.
The full truth is when you ask strategic questions that are both well-worded and well-timed, you will gain information. However, it is not always delivered in the preferred form. If you have a good relationship and the stakes are not too risky, then you might receive a straight answer.
However, the insight you often gain is from how the other party responds. How do they answer your question? What information do they include and what did they purposely leave out? What did you notice about their physical reaction? Did their cheeks blush? Did they squirm? Did they swallow?
In the process of gathering information, we need to be mindful that while we would love to have all the straight facts upfront regarding what the other party wants and needs, that’s not realistic. So, preparing questions and delivering them in a natural way, so you do not come across as an interrogator, is a discipline maintained by the most successful negotiators.
Unfortunately, most people don’t create a list of questions ahead of time. Instead, they wait until they engage in the negotiation and the tension of the moment inhibits clear thinking. They might ask some questions and forget others compromising the opportunity to ask that question again.
Some people are afraid of asking questions for fear they will show weakness or look foolish. To shape a deal that addresses the other party’s interests as well as your own, you need to know what’s important to them. That’s how you build a relationship. A one-sided outcome that is self-serving at the expense of the other party is a formula for disaster, as it compromises a long-lasting solution.
In Ron Shapiro’s and Mark Jankowski’s book, "The Power of Nice," they present a simple four-step process for probing. It’s called W.H.A.T, and stands for Why, Hypothesize, Answer and Tally.
1. W is for Why? Why is about understanding the intention or interest driving a particular position. To clarify, a position is a statement that captures what the other party wants. For example, "I want five new computers for my department." That’s a position.
What you want to know is "Why" do they want that? What makes it important, necessary or absolutely critical? Your response will be different if the need is politically fueled versus productivity based. In other words, do they want the five computers because they want to be the envy of the other departments or will having these new computers double their department’s productivity and output and therefore eliminate the costs associated with overtime pay.
It’s not always easy to flush out the other party’s interests. It’s not uncommon to encounter resistance or avoidance if the interests are self-serving or if they have been burned before by disclosing their needs. Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. It just means do not become discouraged or abandon the effort if you are not successful right out of the box.
It’s important to keep in mind that when you ask questions, be mindful of how your voice sounds. Do you sound curious or controlling? Are you demure or demonstrative? How you ask the question is as important as the words you use to ask it.
2. H is for Hypothesize. Good negotiators are cautious about the information they disclose. They know that information is power in a negotiation, so they control what information they disclose and on what timing.
You might receive a cryptic response to a direct question. When this happens, this might be an indication that the other party has information they don’t want you to know. To encourage the flow of information, try asking hypothetical questions. These include but are not limited to … Let’s pretend that … Just suppose that … What I?
The value of a hypothetical question is that it eliminates the other party feeling boxed in before they are ready to make a decision. Instead, you invite them to expand their thinking about possibilities rather than feel the pressure of yes/no decisions.
3. A is for Answer. (Answer questions with questions.) When the other party asks you a question and you want more information, it is advantageous to answer a question with a question.
For some people this is not a natural tendency. Most people feel obligated to answer a question. When negotiating, it’s not always to your advantage to do so. Especially if the information you will disclose is premature.
This discipline is one that takes practice. When you don’t want to answer a particular question, think before speaking. Take a deep breath and give yourself some time to formulate a question to respond.
An example might be if you were talking to a prospective buyer about purchasing your company, and they ask, "How many of your employees can you lay off to achieve economies of scale?" This is an emotionally charged question. After taking a deep breath, you might respond by asking, "Which offices are you planning to shut down?"
Resisting the temptation to answer a question directly takes emotional discipline and practice. It’s worth the effort because when you are listening and the other party is talking, you are learning. The more information you have, the stronger your position is to develop an effective strategy.
4. T stands for Tally. In other words, take a time-out from the negotiations and tally up what you know. Review the information you have gathered, and identify information gaps that you are missing. Are you clear about what’s really important to the other party? Are you confident that you understand the other party’s positions and interests? Do you know all of their concession demands?
Moving too quickly during the fact-finding/information gathering process can put you at a competitive disadvantage. Information is power in a negotiation. Rushing through this process compromises your ability to make strategic decisions.
Keep in mind that as you use the W.H.A.T. process, that not all positions or interests are rational, nor are they deal-breakers or makers. Your goal is to gather information so you will understand what is most important to the other party.
With this information in mind, you can more effectively strategize solutions that the other party might find acceptable. And that should be the intent of every negotiation – to find a mutually beneficial outcome.
Christine McMahon is the owner of Christine McMahon & Associates, a training and coaching firm in Milwaukee. She can be reached at (414) 290-3344, via fax at (414) 290-3330 or e-mail her at: email@example.com.
October 29, 2004, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI