Mastering the Art of Effective Questioning: A Key Skill for Successful Negotiations

Steps you can take to begin to master the art of questioning.

This article was written by Matthew Geddie, he is a talented and seasoned entrepreneur, creating products, developing IP, building brands and executing international sales and marketing strategies. He has worked for The Gap Partnership, a leading negotiation consultancy and training provider. He brings a wealth of expertise with particular strengths in areas of business development, strategy, new venture initiatives, brand management, executive coaching and leadership, product development, and innovation. With an abundance of international experience, Matt has a strong understanding of various markets throughout North America, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

As the professional world moves to more digital communication and interactions, finding time to meet personally with one’s counterparty is becoming more and more difficult. When you do get a face-to-face meeting this puts even more importance on maximizing output from this opportunity, and if the purpose of the meeting was for the exchange of information, the ability to question effectively will be crucial. Little puts you more in control than effective questioning, yet it is a skill and art that is often underrated, and mostly underdeveloped in many professionals.

Albert Einstein has been acclaimed as one of the greatest thinkers of our time, but he rarely achieves the same acclamation for his ability to question and ask effective questions of a situation or outcome. Einstein knew that asking the right questions enabled better results, allowing him to home in on the true problem in order to provide the best possible solution and answer. Einstein was an expert in “getting inside the head” of the problem.

Although asking questions may seem like a simple task, it’s perhaps the most effective tool we have as negotiators. Asking effective questions can allow you to properly understand the field within which you are negotiating. It drives information which leads to power and empowerment for your negotiation. It also provides you with the opportunity to give the other party what they want, effectively trading low-cost, high value, resulting in collaborative value accretive long term agreements. Unfortunately, too often a negotiator enters a negotiation achieving none of these, making the mistake of assuming that they know all the answers and therefore don’t need to ask appropriate questions. We see this play out when individuals propose what they assume the other party wants or needs without truly discerning what is important to them. 

Albert Einstein told us, “Assumptions are made, and most assumptions are wrong.” We know time and circumstance drive what is important to the other party, but both are constantly shifting based on internal and external pressures along with opportunities available. So what was right last month or last year may not be right at this time. Plans and proposals, therefore, are often misaligned, and value is offered to the counterparty that isn’t as valuable as one would assume. This becomes a major issue when trying to drive collaborative negotiations. It is no surprise that giving someone value they don’t truly want, or worse forcing them to take it, gets in the way of many otherwise successful negotiations.

In recently working with a large FMCG international organization,  we found an executive who was   faced with the increasing pressure  of having all of his interactions with a key customer moved to email.  This led to the executive being  treated quite transactionally by a retailer that was viewed by his organization as having significant strategic value. The more this executive pushed, the less time he received. He began to throw data, analytics, and innovation at the retailer in the hope of being viewed more strategically, but all to no avail. 

One day he received an email from his counterparty asking for recommendations on SKU placements for the next reset. We challenged this executive to think about his response differently and instead of the planned reply of answering with full recommendations, to instead go back with just a simple question, “What do we have that is important to you?” The retailer responded immediately with their own ideas, to which the brand executive offered a face to face meeting to explore the retailer’s needs. The meeting was accepted, and an opportunity was created to resume a far more personal passage of communication, all as a result of the simple act of asking an effective question at the right time.

We rarely find professionals that enter meetings with no preconceived ideas, equipped with nothing more than an empty notebook and their “questioning toolbox”. Yet, this is what it often takes to truly ask effective questions.

Questioning and the ability to question effectively is truly an art. An art that can be developed and ideally mastered. “If you want to know how clever a person is, listen to their answers. If you want to know how wise a person is, listen to their questions.” – Anonymous

An effective questioner can guide a discussion and shape a positive environment no matter the terms or action being taken. An effective questioner can assess the true understanding of the other party. An effective questioner can foster development and stimulate critical thinking and creativity for their negotiation.

Here are three steps you can take to begin to master the art of questioning. They will drive value for you and your organization and most importantly help you become a better negotiator.

  1. Audit Your Question Style 

The first step to asking better questions is to perform a question-asking audit to assess the kinds of questions you tend to ask in a meeting. Next meeting you have, ask a colleague to take notes on what questions you ask and how you ask them. Also, have them keep track of whether you listen to the answer or interrupt the other party halfway through. This will give you an idea of strengths and development opportunities.

  1. Build Your “Questioning Toolbox” 

An audit will identify what type of questions are asked and will allow you to identify if they were appropriate for driving your end result and the information you were seeking to obtain. For the questions that worked, add them to the toolbox. Work with peers to establish which questions they use that are effective. Then build a list that you can bring with you to your meetings. The more robust the better so that you have the ability to control the flow of information and succeed in what you planned on achieving. Finally, within your toolbox, build in a question funnel that starts with open ended questions guiding the counterparty to more specific questions and answers.

  1. Establish a “Question- Asking & Listening Style”

Developing an appropriate tone for asking questions goes a long way towards creating a collaborative conversation where you can ascertain the information sought. Nothing shuts down a conversation faster than a negative response or quick rebuttal. When asked how long professionals waited for a response to a question, most said they wait at least five seconds. In reality studies show most professionals do not wait longer than one second for a response to a  question before interjecting. As part of your style build in a full five seconds for a proper response. Give your counterparty time to think. It may feel like an eternity at first, but you will be glad you did.  

These three areas will have a significant impact on your ability to question effectively and can be relatively easily implemented. While these are areas to develop, here are three specifics to avoid as you perfect the art of questioning:

  1. Don’t ask the dreaded, “Are there any further questions?” question. This could make the other party feel intimidated, inadequate, or shut down a fruitful conversation. Instead supplement, “Now, I’m sure you have some questions” or “What did I leave out?”
  2. Avoid asking “hammer head” questions, i.e. questions that intimidate the other party or are yes/no type of questions.
  3. Avoid questions you already know the answer to. This can be seen as demeaning to the other party or rudimentary at best. ? 

Effective questioning of course will be suboptimized if not combined with effective listening. Listening is the mass multiplied to questioning’s speed of light squared; without it is hard to create anything. Gone must be the days when one asks a question and is then thinking of the next question to ask instead of listening to the answer to the original question. Why even ask a question in the first place if you are not going to listen to the answer? There is a fundamental difference of course between hearing and listening; you can be the best questioner in the world yet miss everything due to poor listening skills. Remove any assumptions from the answers you receive, and simply listen to the answer; listening to understand, not to prove a point. Effective questioning and effective listening are not passive, and if executed well can be quite tiring. 

If you leave a meeting without getting the information you wanted or required, the fault is with you. Ask yourself why you didn’t achieve what you wanted and most likely it will come down to a lack of effective time spent on your questioning style. Effective questioning takes time and practice. The more you put into mastering the art of questioning and becoming more effective at asking questions, the more information you will obtain, giving you more power for your negotiation. As Einstein famously said about the power of preparation: 

“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I would spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking of the solutions.” – Albert Einstein.

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