- Ask, ask, ask. For several reasons in life and negotiations, people do not ask enough questions. First, we are self-focused and often don’t think to ask questions about others. Second, we may not ask questions because we are more interested in ourselves than we are in the answers of the other party. Third, we realize and worry about asking questions that will be perceived as intrusive or offensive.
In negotiations, we want to optimize two goals: learning information and impression management. We need to learn things about our counterpart, but we also want them to like and respect us. Luckily, asking questions satisfies both goals. Based on research conducted Harvard Business School professors Karen Huang and Alison Brooks, not only is asking questions useful for information exchange in a negotiation, but people actually like conversational partners who frequently ask them questions more than those who ask them questions infrequently. Asking questions triggers self-disclosures by the question answerer, which feels good because people typically love talking about themselves. You can expect the question answerer to attribute those good feelings to you (the curious, caring person who asked).
- Content matters, but less than you think. In their research, Huang and Brooks found that people are worried about asking questions that could seem too personal, specific, broad, or nosy. But the content of questions matters less than most people think. Generally speaking, people are happy to be asked almost anything; and, in the rare cases when they aren’t, they can choose not to answer.
Master question-askers often start with “small talk” questions on topics unrelated to the negotiation: “What are some of your interests outside of work?” or “I see you want to the University of Texas. Did you like it?” Questions seemingly unrelated to the negotiation help to build rapport and trust by signaling that you care about your counterpart, and the answers may reveal information that is helpful in the negotiations.When negotiations begin, the way you ask questions can make a difference. Asking pointed questions, “What matters most to you today and why?” can inspire honest answers.
- Listen carefully to answers. Many people don’t listen carefully to people’s answers to their questions. If you don’t listen carefully, you won’t learn the information you seek, and you won’t know what types of follow-up questions to ask. (We have all seen this in court during cross examinations.) Follow-up questions signal empathy and active listening, which build trust, rapport and increase your counterpart’s disclosures. People won’t listen to you until they feel like you have listened to them. Careful listening and specific follow-up questions will help you detect when someone is dodging your questions.
November Thanksgiving Quote: A thankful heart is not only the greatest virtue, but the parent of all other virtues. —-Cicero