From last month’s Journal on Conscious Listening, the natural follow-on topic to help you in your crucial conversations is The Art of Asking Questions. You may have noticed that, given the chance, people love nothing more than being able to talk about themselves, their opinions, their problems as well as their own solutions and ideas.

A skilled negotiator satiates and leverages this primal need for self-expression, predominantly by having mastered the Art of Asking Questions and Conscious Listening. To drive this point further, in his best-selling book “How to Win Friends and Influence People” Dale Carnegie quotes research that identifies the ability to ask questions as the top trait of someone who is perceived to be interesting (!!!), intelligent and engaging by their counterpart. We’ve all heard the proverb “you have two ears and one mouth, use them in these proportions”, but let’s go beyond the obvious… When you are speaking, how do you make it really count in terms of maintaining control and steering your negotiations towards success? Instead of telling them something, ask them a guiding question to elicit the response you’re seeking, as people trust, like and value something they have said themselves far more than if you say the same thing. And just for that reason alone, it is worth looking at this topic far more closely… Ready?

WHY is asking questions so important?

Although this may be counter-intuitive, the person who is asking the questions controls the negotiation dialogue, as opposed to the one doing the talking.

Asking questions enables you to:

  • Build rapport and trust

  • Gather information you need to make informed decisions

  • Validate assumptions

  • Clarify understanding

  • Lead/control the dialogue

  • Unsettle your counterpart’s attachment to a certain position/perspective

  • Invite a response/ get the feedback on your proposal or other actions

On this point, I just wanted to share a brief story about Rosana, a very successful entrepreneur that I was meeting within Dubai about 7 years ago to discuss some possible work. After 15 minutes into the meeting, I was still patiently waiting for my turn to speak as Rosana was thoroughly enjoying monopolizing “the floor”. The topic was the upcoming 2-day offsite program with her whole Leadership Team that she was very excited about. But then, something happened. She was still catching her breath after her long monologue when I simply said: “Rosana, I am hearing that this is an important and exciting program for you. May I just ask you a question?… How are you going to measure the success of this program?”

She stared at me blankly. We both smiled. And 5 minutes later, with some deeper questioning, we signed on a 6-month consulting engagement for me to help her work on the Business Strategy.

No pitch, nothing but a few powerful questions. Done.

WHAT are the different types of questions?

In essence, there are two types: Open-Ended Questions are those that lead your counterpart to react/respond to your question by providing information. These questions are expansive in nature and typically start with “who,” “what,” “where,” “when,” “how,” or “why”. For example:

  • When it comes to getting to an agreement, what is most important to you?
  • How do you see this situation?
  • Who are all the people involved in making this decision?
  • How do you feel about our proposal?
  • What other possibilities should we consider?
  • Before we close for today, what else do you feel you’d like to share?
  • When can we implement this agreement?
  • We seem to be stalling, why do you think that is?

Close-ended Questions lead to a “YES” or “NO” response and generally start with “would,” “should,” “is,” “are,” and “do you”. By giving your counterpart a limited choice of responses (YES or NO), you elicit a very specific response that commits and anchors them to a specific point and deliberately moves the conversation forward in a particular direction. For instance:

  • Is anyone else involved in making this decision?
  • So, are you saying that this problem is now resolved to your satisfaction?
  • Does this proposal work for you?
  • Yesterday you agreed to this point, so are you saying that you have now changed your mind?
  • Are you now ready to progress?
  • Should we go over our proposal again?
  • Is this a sufficient time frame for you to implement this agreement?

Watch this 1:14min video to see how Harvard Business Review classified questions into 4 easy-to-understand categories, which you may find useful:

Knowing when to ask an open-ended or a close-ended question is extremely important. Done incorrectly or at the wrong time may actually entrench your counterpart’s position deeper instead of progressing the negotiation towards an agreement, or “anchor” them to a specific point that will be an obstacle instead of an enabler.

Moreover, knowing how to Frame your Question is even more important, as it will determine how your counterpart will perceive it and thus the response you will get.

In other words, HOW is crucial! Join us on this month’s webinar to discover exactly how to do this! Lastly, I recently came by a great quote from Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google: “We run this company on questions, not answers.”  This was a great reminder that the most important questions we ask are the ones we ask ourselves! But more on this at this month’s Key Distinctions Webinar.

It’s free – I hope you’ll join us. Until then, go out on a limb and practice asking questions!

"Imagine a world where the men in business not only come home with more value in the deal, but with a new sense of trust and respect as a society?"

Fabian Courtaux, Trusted Negotiator