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negotiating life

Ask, Don’t Tell

The right questions can clinch a deal

After years of unsuccessfully lecturing his patients on the need to stop smoking and control their weight, a Boston doctor decided to ask them questions: “What will it take to get you to stop smoking?” “What can we do to help you lose weight?” The patients made far greater efforts to give up cigarettes and stick to their diets.

Negotiators often overlook the power of questions. After all, isn’t a question a sign of ignorance or weakness? Yet questions can be excellent negotiating tools. They can help you gather essential information, build relationships, or persuade the other party, and in the doctor’s case, they did all three. Let’s look briefly at each of these functions:

Gathering essential information. The questions the doctor posed made patients think seriously about their problem. As a result, he gained insight into their interests, something that’s essential in negotiations. Remember, negotiation, when done right, is not a debate but an educational process for both sides, and education always begins with a question. Important questions for discovering interests include “What are the key elements you need in this agreement?” and “Why are they important to you?” The right questions are also vital in creating options, so you might want to ask something like “What if . . . ?” Or “How have other people solved this problem?”

A story I recounted in my Fall 2006 column comes to mind here. A wealthy man died and left all his property to be divided equally between his two daughters, Janet and Claire. All went smoothly until they came to the old man’s ring, a diamond signet that he had worn most of his life. Both daughters wanted it, and each refused to budge. Finally, Janet asked Claire a key question: “Why do you want the ring?” Claire replied, “Because it has a beautiful diamond. I thought I’d make a pendant out of it.” Janet responded, “I want it because it reminds me of our father.” The sisters realized that their interests were not necessarily incompatible. They agreed that Claire would have the diamond replaced with Janet’s birthstone. Then she would return the ring to Janet and keep the diamond.

Building relationships. In asking his patients sincere questions about themselves and their habits, the doctor was letting them know that they were important to him and that he cared about their concerns, ideas, and feelings. He had learned an invaluable lesson: that asking the right questions in the right way can build stronger relationships.

The leader of a software development team used this approach to good effect when a senior engineer declared that he was no longer coming to team meetings. He had never had to put up with so many meetings at his old company. Instead of putting her foot down, the team leader asked how the old company had run and what role the engineer had played there.And it turned out that the engineer had a take on things that opened her eyes to new ways of thinking. The discussion led to a productive working relationship and a profitable new product for the company.

Persuading the other party. The doctor’s questions were a way of asking his patients to advise him. The patients regarded their new regimens as their own idea, not the doctor’s, and went about them with real determination. The fact is, most people like to give advice. It’s an inclination you can put to work for you in your negotiations. Vice President Joe Biden did just that in the waning days of the Cold War when, as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he wanted the Soviet foreign minister, Andrey Gromyko, to accept modifications in a proposed arms control treaty. Sensing Gromyko’s resistance, Biden asked his advice on how to explain some of the treaty’s provisions to his Senate colleagues. In the dialogue that ensued, Gromyko said, “I see what you mean. Perhaps we can modify the language.”

The next time you have to negotiate with your customers, your boss, or your offspring, don’t immediately prepare a speech to overpower them. Rather, think about what questions you could be asking. You just might end up with an agreement that satisfies both of you.

JESWALD W. SALACUSE is the Henry J. Braker Professor of Law and former dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts. His most recent book is Seven Secrets for Negotiating with Government (AMACOM).

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