This blog was originally published on 03/6/2017 and updated on 7/16/2020.
Negotiation is an information-gathering process. It’s not about getting your points across. It’s about using Tactical Empathy™ to uncover the information you need to understand exactly where your counterpart is coming from—and then making sure they know that you understand them.
The best negotiators never sit down at the table hoping to get the other side to understand them. Just like Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, suggests, “Seek to understand before being understood.”
Getting the Other Side to Buy In
Even if you are talking to someone who specifically says "give me your sales pitch" or "explain your value proposition," they are simply having trouble articulating their needs. Instead, they hope that you say something that makes sense to them.
But as we say in Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It™, hope is not a strategy—even if you are not the one who is being hopeful.
Your job as a negotiator is to create an environment where the other side can not only accurately articulate their needs, but also trust you with information that might affect their leverage.
Simply put, Calibrated Questions are questions that begin with what, how, or, sometimes, why. There’s something about the way these questions hit the brain that actually makes people stop and think. Your counterpart won’t be able to provide a one-word answer to a question like this: How are we supposed to do that?
A great side benefit of a well-placed Calibrated Question is that it puts the issue of solving the problem completely on the counterpart. It gives them the illusion of control even though you actually have the upper hand. This is a great thing because your goal is to get the other side to make decisions and ultimately close themselves.
3 Calibrated Questions to Get Buy-In
Now that you have a better idea of what Calibrated Questions are and why they work, let’s take a look at three specific examples to take your learning to the next level.
1. How does this fit?
This question is designed to get your counterpart to take a step back and look at the problem holistically. Truth be told, the other side might not know the answer. But this is a good thing. Sometimes, you need to ask questions that your counterpart will have to run by people on their team (e.g., the ultimate decision maker).
2. What makes you ask?
As the old saying goes, The question behind the question is more important. At Black Swan, we contend that “What makes you ask?” should be your answer to every question that comes your way.
On one hand, we know that people are generally not good at asking questions. On the other hand, asking this Calibrated Question returns the volley to your counterpart, who will then reveal the question behind the question.
Worried that you’ll get a negative response to this Calibrated Question? Don’t be. If the other side seems frustrated by your response, say something like this: “I always want to make sure that I answer your questions to the fullest of my ability. At no point do I want you to feel misled.”
One last thing: “Why do you ask?” is not the same question. The other side might respond to this question with something like: “Because it’s my job.” You’ll get a much more specific answer by leading with what.
3. How do we know your team is on board?
There is an idea in hostage negotiation called Proof of Life™. As we see it in the movies, it’s similar to the average security question for an online account. Think, “What was the make of your first car?” Only the person themselves would know the correct answer.
We’ve expanded this idea out to the business world using the above Calibrated Question, which gives us "the proof of life of the deal."
There is always a team on the other side. It is extremely rare that you would run into someone who makes decisions all on their own. And even if you're speaking to someone who is a one-person shop, there is still someone on this Earth whom they confide in and bounce ideas off of.
This question is designed to unify the team on the other side. And the answer will also indicate whether or not they actually plan on doing business with you and honoring their agreements.
How Will You Use Calibrated Questions?
If you are creative enough, every single question that could possibly be asked can be shaped into a what or how question. Sometimes you may need to reword slightly, but it will be worth the effort.
My favorite questions are how-based because people don’t really ask how questions that often. Maybe it is ego or pride or a feeling of weakness to reveal that you don’t already know the answer to some question.
Human nature tells us that people like to prove how smart they are by talking. Yet sometimes, getting the other side to talk about things that lead to Black Swans is the hardest part. By using Calibrated Questions and these three questions in particular, you can get your counterpart to open up and lead both sides to the conclusion you’re aiming for.
Interested in learning more tricks like these to improve your negotiation skills? Download our free guide, Ultimate Negotiation Checklist for Sales Teams, today.