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Seven Must-Ask Questions for Any Negotiation

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by Eldonna Lewis Fernandez, author

The word negotiation often calls up a mental picture of a big boardroom table with people on opposite sides arguing over a multimillion-dollar deal. But we negotiate every single day in every area of our lives, both personally and professionally. Think about negotiating salaries, services, deadlines, and prices, for instance, and it’s clear that negotiation is simply a series of discussions to agree on any deal, which is then typically reduced to writing in the form of a contract or agreement.

Perhaps you are seeking a service from someone who will design a website, handle bookkeeping, provide distribution services, or work to generate publicity for you. Or maybe you are purchasing supplies that you need delivered at a certain price on a certain schedule. Terms and conditions for all these deals are negotiable.

During my 30 years as a contracting professional, I found that people sometimes hesitate to negotiate because they feel negotiation is confrontational and confrontation brings on a level of discomfort, or because they lack the confidence to stand up for themselves, or they don’t know what to ask for or how to ask.

Some of the best places to hone your skills in negotiation are yard sales or swap meets. In these nonthreatening environments, you will usually be risking just a few dollars, or maybe even just a few cents, so it’s relatively easy to get comfortable with negotiating. In any event, though, a negotiation is nothing more than a discussion through which both parties seek to formulate and settle upon a mutually beneficial agreement, no matter what the agreement is about.

What makes a successful negotiator—one who comes out on top in deal-making more often than not? Of course, there are numerous tactics you can use to improve your chances of emerging victorious in a negotiation, but the most important of them entails asking just the right kind of questions—questions that will elicit answers that will facilitate a win for all parties involved.

Here are seven questions that will help you ensure a desirable outcome in any negotiation.

Would you explain the reasons for your position?

If you can’t clearly understand the other party’s reasoning after some discussion, the best way to discover their position and motivations is to ask directly about the rationale for what they are offering or seeking. Once you know the other party’s thought process and justifications—rather than just the outcome they want—you will be able to adjust your strategy and responses to make a win-win deal more likely.

For instance, if the other party is requiring some advance payment that doesn’t sit well with you, you might learn that they need the money up front to pay for material that’s essential for putting your arrangement in motion. And once you understand the logic behind the demand, you will be better able to control the discussion and create agreeable terms.

Is there any reason you can’t?

This is a great question to ask when you believe the other party is avoiding or rejecting your offer for no legitimate reason or because they haven’t thought it through well enough.

Sometimes people make shallow excuses for why they can’t do something, or they shoot down an idea with shortsighted objections. When you ask this question, the other party will often have a hard time coming up with legitimate reasons for rejecting your argument or offer. Once they realize that, they may reconsider their position.

And if the other party does come up with a viable objection, you will then have the opportunity to address that objection directly and, ideally, overcome it with sound reasoning of your own.

Why do you think this is a fair and reasonable term [or condition]?

A fair and reasonable term or condition—such as a price, a proposal, or a provision—can be defined as a term or condition that is prudent in the light of competitive market conditions, given a reasonable knowledge of the marketplace. Fair implies a proper balance of conflicting or divided interests. Reasonable means not extreme or excessive.

If you are concerned about the reasonableness of an offer, do some research about comparable terms and conditions. Then ask this question to encourage the other party to define and defend the reasonableness of their requirement, and to get the best deal possible.

Why is that point [or provision] important?

Understanding the significance of specific points and provisions is imperative and may even lead you to adjust your position. The answer the other party provides when you ask about a point or provision will allow you to fine-tune your strategy in light of their critical priorities and values.

And when you understand, acknowledge, and validate the significance of the other party’s requests, you can not only recalibrate your approach; you can also create more of a team atmosphere to build trust more quickly.

What part of my proposal gives you the most concern?

No matter what this question applies to—perhaps a major contract negotiation, a job offer, or a schedule—breaking a proposal down into individual elements or points is helpful because people find it easier to deal with bite-sized pieces than with one large chunk.

Discussing a proposal point by point, particularly in terms of main concerns, allows the parties in a negotiation to come to small, fractional agreements that might not have been possible through discussions of the proposal as a whole.

When you deal directly with points in triage mode—starting from the most problematic for the other side—you show that you care. This can get you past sticking points and greatly expedite the entire negotiating process.

What documentation or proof do you have to validate your position?

You may have heard the adage “Trust but verify.” It’s important to know that what is being presented as factual in any negotiation is 100% factual. The best way to determine that is with documentation.

A trusting nature will not serve you well in a negotiation when decisions are being made based on certain claims. It’s imperative to secure documentation to back those claims up. The old cliché often applies: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Once you sign on the dotted line, undoing a deal will be difficult if not impossible, and quite unpleasant.

What else do you think I should know?

When you’ve discussed everything you wanted to discuss but you still want to ensure that you have thoroughly vetted the deal, asking this question may reveal some points that you hadn’t noticed or considered. Once revealed, something you hadn’t known might change your way of thinking, change what you are seeking, or change the strategy you started with, as well as lead to an agreement that is not only in your best interest, but also better for all involved.

Eldonna Lewis Fernandez is a retired Air Force Master Sergeant with more than 30 years of experience in contracts management and negotiation, and she is also the author of Think Like a Negotiator. Currently the CEO of Dynamic Vision International—a consulting and training firm that helps individuals hone negotiation skills—she reports that she is a nationally regarded keynote speaker, session leader, and panelist on the art of negotiation. To learn more: ThinkLikeANegotiator.com.

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