Listening to our counterparts is imperative to negotiation, but it is meaningless if the right questions aren’t being asked. People often disguise commands as questions or use a tone that evokes accusations instead of empathy. Most people think they ask great questions, but questions that already supply an answer, or are engineered to get the answer we want, are low-value questions. Dan Oblinger, a recurring guest on Negotiations Ninja, calls these “garbage questions” and says they provoke “garbage answers” and “garbage relationships.” As a hostage negotiator for the FBI, Dan is an expert at relating to people and influencing negotiations. He has recently turned his focus on how to properly ask questions to get the best results in a negotiation.
We all have a preferred way to receive information, and we inadvertently engineer questions to collect information in a preferred format – it is likely a “garbage question.” Questions should be about inquiry and discovery, not a way to make demands. Remove can, will, do, and are from our question-asking vocabulary. Those are low-value questions. Instead, try questions that start with how and what. Those questions tend to be about process, principles, and storytelling.
Why questions can also lead to meaningful conversation and successful negotiation, however, should be used with caution. If the tone used is not sensitive, they can come off as accusatory. The goal is to get a relationship to a point where we can maintain honesty and earnestly ask why questions, which is not always suitable for the beginning of a relationship. “People want to be shown that you care,” says Dan. “You’ve got to prove it.”
Why questions, in particular, trigger emotional responses in people. Anger, sensitivity, defensiveness, and deflection can materialize and get out of control. As negotiators, we must anticipate emotional reactions and subsequently control our backlashes to outbursts. If a harsh response is expected, try not to get caught off guard and give an emotional response. Spend time thinking about how the conversation could go so that the response is appropriate and not emotional. In a negotiation, self-care comes first, meaning how we are reacting to conflict. Be conscious of the emotional reaction and verbalize it. Apologize if necessary or take a break. Addressing our emotions and taking ownership of them is a fantastic way to get to a deeper understanding and to build trust.
Always make sure to listen. Asking valid questions is helpful but is only one half of real listening. When our counterpart opens up, it is essential to receive their response without conjecture or applying an opinion. Listen to stories for motivations, hopes, dreams, and emotions. Even if it is hard to hear as a leader, asking someone their opinion and valuing it helps to make a more informed decision by giving perspective. Learning to listen to our team or our counterpart will help leadership and negotiations.
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