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Using Questions for Enlightenment

It has frequently been said that negotiation is not an act of war, but a journey of discovery.  A journey aimed at getting to the position where all the parties around the table agree on a particular proposition or stance, because the option has been introduced and explored in such a way that it makes sense to everyone present. 

That important process – getting to the “that’s right” moment – involves, above all else, that the party leading the negotiation (the mediator in a facilitated mediation, for example) must continually pose the questions which shed light on the mindset, interests and agenda of the disputant parties. 

So let’s look at the vital act of asking questions that assist the parties, as they travel the rocky road towards consensus.  

Firstly, the skilled negotiator realises the value of forming a close alliance with those trusted questioning mechanisms called interrogatives – the what, why, when, how and who.  Using interrogatives frequently, to gain understanding and probe into the inner-core aspects which make that negotiating party tick, is a golden secret used by all the great negotiators.  Interrogatives are valuable because they are so open-ended, so innocent, so very conducive towards getting a party to divulge details, great and small, which are going to contribute towards understanding, progress, settlement.  

Remember, too, that these questions should be posed in the most gentle and understated tone of voice.  Not the in-your-face confrontational manner of the trial lawyer, mercilessly dismantling a hostile witness.  A negotiator asks questions in a manner, and tone, which indicates that the questions are without malice, aimed at gaining understanding and insight into what the party at the negotiating table is actually trying to defend, promote or achieve.  

The second skill which the negotiator has, when using questions, is that of raising questions to demonstrate empathy, and a desire to build bridges.  In negotiations, empathy does not equate to bunny-hugging, endlessly sentimental agree-at-all-costs type of approach.  What it does, however, require is for the questioner to demonstrate that he is willing, and trying really hard, to understand what it is that makes the particular clock tick.  Useful phrases to be used in this context include “let me understand …”, “would it be completely out of the question to suggest that …”, “this is the scenario it seems we’re facing, but help me fill in the gaps that I’m missing out on”.  That kind of question.  Questions which don’t judge, but which indicate a willingness to acquire an understanding, and to use that understanding to resolve whatever fire-breathing dragons are marching back and forth, on the negotiation table. 

There’s the equally useful questioning techniques of reversing, aimed at making the opponent see things from your point of view (or, if you’re a mediator, assisting each party to better understand the stance of the other party).  Reversing requires the party tabling a proposal or adopting a position to step back and consider, for a moment, how it would be perceived by the other side.  It’s useful because the golden rule of negotiation is, after all, that you can only sell a proposition if you’re able to place yourself in the shoes of the person or entity to whom you’re pitching the sale.  So, a typical lead-in to a reversing question is, “how do you expect us to achieve that?”, or “what are the advantages your proposal holds for the other side?”. 

Questions.  They are your best friends.  Use them frequently.  



Andre Oosthuizen

André Oosthuizen is a senior counsel, based in Cape Town who specialises in commercial law, employment law, intellectual property, administrative law, sports law, professional indemnity claims and property law. He has completed courses in mediation at the Graduate School of Business, Stellenbosch and at Harvard University. He has mediated disputes,… MORE >

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