Having an individual or a team of people ask you questions is an easily foreseeable part of negotiation. Knowing that negotiation is an information gathering endeavor, you need to be prepared to make sure you take every opportunity to make yourself smarter. Sometimes these moments are when questions are asked of you. They are trying to piece together the puzzle for themselves which is why they would ask the question in the first place. In these moments they are focused on something about you that directly relates to value-driven directives for them. No person will ever be able to articulate their entire thought pattern that caused them to arrive at a particular inquiry. Which means chances are what they asked you has holes in it. Where have you left yourself and your counterpart by answering?
There is an old saying - “The question behind the question is more important.” I am not sure where this originally came from, but I’d be willing to bet their life revolved around some form of communication. You don’t think up something like that unless you're interacting with people that ask you stuff. This has to be one of the most situationally aware foundations to speaking to people I have ever heard. We already know that everyone holds things back at the table, while the situation dictates the varying degrees of importance, the fact that information is being held back from you is a reality.
Human nature tells us that in communication people generally try to fill holes in their thinking by asking questions. Now there are two big problems with that. First, unless people are Black Swan trained they are probably not developing the wording for their questions prior to the interaction. What that means for you is their questions will be very off the cuff, which translates to not well thought out. Second, if someone is actively hiding information from you but asking questions in a way that is sneaky, they will never be able to properly phrase it due to fear of saying something that gives away their position.
What makes you ask?
Knowing all this leaves you with one of two avenues to take. Our top answer and mainstay to Black Swan communication is to say “what makes you ask?”. Now let it be noted this is not “why do you ask?”. There are many inherent problems with “why,” we do not have time to go into them, but it can be powerful in communication. Unfortunately, "why" is often treated as a weapon, wielded without understanding its impact.
“What makes you ask” is an innocent way to say I don’t understand. When Black Swan does in-person training sessions, discussion on the aspects of what you say versus what is interpreted in negotiation is very relevant. You have reached real communication prowess when you have wrapped your mind around this idea. When you say “what makes you ask” with proper delivery, your counterpart will hear “help me understand” especially if you have laid a solid empathy foundation to the current interaction. Another reason this is a great question is because in the event they say “I’m curious,” “no reason” or even become irate you can always tell them that you want to make sure you answer the question as best you can so they feel treated fairly.
It seems like X is important.
This is one of our “go-to labels.” Another part of prep for negotiation is hypothesizing what the 3-5 most relevant and value identifying labels would be for the situation. If you have read the book or been through a session of Black Swan’s on labels you know, they are simply defined as observations. The trick to the skill is understanding how to identify things that are not obvious. However, that doesn’t discount the application of picking things out that are on the surface. When someone asks you a question generally, speaking without looking too hard, you can ID what they might be aiming at. This is a place where the above go-to label fits perfectly.
Prepare for your crucial and potentially emotionally driven conversations with 6-10 labels of influence. 3-5 Go-to and 3-5 situational. Understanding your industry as well as you do, puts you in the best position to create your list of readily useable, highly accurate labels that apply very broadly. In general Black Swan refers to labels as the chameleon skill because they fit into so many aspects of a given interaction, even bargaining.
Another way to attack questions asked in negotiation is to sequence the two skills above. The information you receive to “what makes you ask” will put you in an even better position to ID something valuable. Be on the lookout for moments to avoid putting yourself in a bad position by answering a bad question.