New Manager

The importance of asking ‘why’ during negotiations

Kamal K Jain | Updated on September 02, 2014


By asking ‘why’ you not only get the deal, you also give an impression to the other party that you care about their needs. This makes you likeable

Questions are a negotiator’s best and most under utilised tools. To best see it in action watch a Ted Talk by Simon Sinek, the author of Start with why, on how great leaders inspire action. Likewise, Marc Schaefer, President and CEO, Truliant Federal Credit Union, reinforces the importance of ‘why’ by saying, “People will accomplish any ‘what’ if they believe in the ‘why’.”

Brad McRae and Jim Hennig say that master negotiators are twice as likely to ask question than their less masterful counterparts. Questions educate without being adversarial. This often leads to a better substantive outcome, a better relationship, and lead to a better negotiation process. Deepak Malhotra and Max H Bazerman go to the extent of saying that the best way to get what you want in negotiation, sometimes the only way, is to approach the situation the way a detective approaches a crime scene.

Agreement is key

If you want to reach an agreement, it may not be enough for you to know what the other party wants. It is equally important to know why. Negotiating involves two parties working to resolve a problem. The problem cannot be solved unless you comprehend it from the other person’s perspective. Why the parties want something is where the process of problem solving begins. Inside every negotiator resides a fear of hearing ‘No’. But if you focus on the reasons of your counterpart’s opposition and try to find out why, you are most likely to find a way to negotiate successfully. So, the next time you hear no, don’t panic and don’t try to outwit your opponent. Pause for a moment and ask the question “Why?”

Fisher and Ury state that skilled negotiating is “a back and forth communication where some interests are shared and some are opposed. The purpose of negotiating is seeing if you can get your interests achieved through an agreement. An interest is why you want something, not what you want. When negotiators start working from the standpoint of interests, they can begin to work with the other party to explore alternative solutions. Good negotiators ask “problem-solving questions” to understand the other's position and underlying needs and look for possible ways to reach agreement.”

Similarly, James K Sebenius in his article Six Habits of Merely Effective Negotiators observes, “Since the other side will say yes for its reasons, not yours, agreement requires understanding and addressing your counterpart’s problem as a means to solving your own”. Jim Henning states, “Good negotiators understand the importance of, and quickly identify, the other Party’s negotiation needs. Great negotiators understand the importance of, and quickly identify, the other party’s personal needs, in addition to their negotiation needs. However, understanding the underlying reason for the need is something that is most important. It is here that you may often come up with a solution that may not cost you much but actually solves the problem of the other side.” Agreed, it is not that every situation will offer you an opportunity to find a solution using this approach. Yet, there may be enough situations that may offer you an opportunity to find an integrative solution.

Let us consider a situation that occurred between a customer who wanted to buy a car and a salesperson who was attending to this customer in the showroom. Having seen several models, the customer finally made-up his mind and asked the salesperson to arrange delivery of that particular car in light green. Knowing that the company does not produce the model in that colour , the salesperson started eulogising to the customer the beauty of other ‘available’ colours. The more he tried to convince the customer, the more resistance he faced. The salesperson felt that the customer was being finicky and almost gave up. At the point, when the customer was about to leave, the salesperson asked him, “Sir, will you help me understand why you want the car only in light green?”

The customer said that he had recently painted his garage light green and wanted to buy a car that matches it. The salesperson proposed, “Sir what if we repaint, at our cost, your garage in another colour, one in which we have the car in stock?” The customer immediately agreed.

Thus, by asking ‘why’ you not only get the deal, you also give an impression to the other party that you care about their needs. They feel you understand their needs and it makes you likeable. Your increased likeability takes care of most of your problems in negotiation. You will discover that your counterpart is now more willing to concede your wishes. He, now, appears more like a collaborator than your opponent. For, after all, don’t forget : In their win, lies your win.

The writer is Professor of Organisational Behaviour and HR at IIM, Indore

Published on September 02, 2014

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