Posts Tagged ‘Asking questions’

Beyond Black and White

Friday, January 14th, 2011

A few weeks ago I got a call from a friend asking for advice. She had just been offered a job she very much wanted, but she had a conflict with the starting date. The employer had told her to report in on January 3. However, she was spending the holidays with her family on the other side of the ocean and had a non-refundable ticket to return to the US only the following weekend. Should she agree to start on the 3rd or not?  “I could come back earlier, “ she said, “but that would mean buying a new ticket, which I can barely afford, plus missing my Mom’s 60th birthday party, which is a major event for our whole family.” The other option was to tell the employer she couldn’t start until a week later, but she worried that that would give her employer a bad impression of her seriousness, starting off her new job on the wrong foot.

My friend had fallen into the common trap of binary thinking—that is, thinking the only responses to an offer are yes or no. Either she could start on the set date or she couldn’t. Or, as she played it out in her mind, either she could fly back early, missing her family event, or she could show up to work a week late, raising questions about her commitment to the new job.

In fact, there were other options, had she only broadened her viewpoint a bit. The trick is to move beyond yes/no to “yes, if” (a more positive take on “no, but”). For example, in this case, the “yes, if” could be “yes, I can start on the 3rd, if I can work remotely for the first week.” After explaining the travel conflict to the employer she would emphasize her desire to get started as soon as possible. Were there any documents she could begin reading now to familiarize herself with the organization and the issues she would be working on so she could hit the ground running when she arrived in person on the 10th? Could she do any projects by email or over the internet? Would they like to have an initial meeting by phone? Were there particular computer programs she should be learning? Even if none of these proved practical, by moving to “yes, if” she would at least demonstrate a much higher commitment to the job than by simply saying no.

I often ask people what color is between black and white. They invariably answer gray. No, I remind them; every color of the spectrum is between black and white. It just depends on the light you shine on it.

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Speak, Listen, Question

Monday, January 10th, 2011

I have worked with a number of companies to improve their internal collaboration through relationship-based negotiation. We usually end each session with the staff taking part in some demonstration role plays. These have been eye-opening experiences for everyone.  Naturally, we tend to feel we are communicating just fine–and that if there is a problem it’s the listener’s fault. From observing those role plays, however, it is clear that we may not be doing everything as well or as consistently as imagined, especially in three key areas:

1. Speaking. Some people have truly mastered the friendly phrase, such as “I understand” or “I want a solution you feel comfortable with.” But if, after saying you understand, you ignore the concern the speaker just raised and launch straight into what you want to say—or if you follow your expressed desire for your counterpart’s comfort with a forceful argument for your predetermined solution—he or she quickly detects insincerity.  In fact, the other party may actually become more resistant than if you had left out those nice sentiments altogether. So does that mean you should dispense with all empathetic language? Of course not. It simply means that words need to express meaning, not just make nice sounds.

2. Listening. Would it make sense to negotiate a maze with your eyes closed? Of course not. Yet time and again I observed people trying to negotiate a complex disagreement with their ears closed. One party would state her concern to be X, only to have her respondent assure her about Y.  Why? Because the respondent hadn’t heard her. Convinced going into the negotiation that he knew what her objections would be, he had put his minds entirely into making arguments to deflect those predetermined objections. This is a trap we all can fall into, as we naturally want to use the arguments we have developed or rack our brains to think up new ones while the other party is speaking. But all we accomplish by sticking to a predetermined argument  is  to carry on two separate conversations whose points never intersect–annoying our counterparts who feel we haven’t listened to a word they said.

3. Asking questions. The biggest problem overall is the tendency to launch into a sales pitch rather than inviting the other party into the discussion by asking questions.  If the respondent expressed qualms or disagreement, the first party simply argues more forcefully. It’s an astoundingly widespread approach given that it’s so ineffective. People are rarely talked into things they don’t want. The effective negotiator spends a lot more time asking question than pushing his or her own views. If the other party appears reluctant, follow up their objections by asking what their concerns are. Then you can start working together to reach a solution. You may even be surprised at the answer.

One final tip on questions: it’s also a good skill to invite questions from the other party by not overwhelming them with information at the start. Instead, start with a short statement or question, such as, “Is there any possibility that you could loan us a couple of your staff for this project?” This will grab the listener’s attention, leading him to ask for more information. Once he asks “Why?” he had invited your explanation, not been accosted with it, and it becomes more of a dialogue.

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Ask, Don’t Tell

Monday, January 10th, 2011

Want a sure-fire method for improving your exchanges with others? Stop telling them what you think and start asking questions.

An effective negotiation—or any decent conversation—is a dialogue. That involves reaching outside of your mental box and connecting your thoughts to other party’s.

Declarative statements about your opinions, ideas or desires, on the other hand, are merely a description of the contents of your personal mental box—useful for providing information, perhaps, but not for reaching an understanding with the other party. In fact declarative statements are often so laden with presumptions that they actually inhibit communication.

If person A says to person B, “I think we should do it this way,” the communication flow ends there. B now knows what A thinks. No response was asked for or is necessary and B can remain disengaged.  If, on the other hand, A asks, “What if we were to do it this way?” B feels invited in and a dialogue begins.

If A says to B, “You should do X,” B feels not so much disengaged as resistant—especially if A has no rightful authority over B. B’s mind is likely whirring with annoyance, “Excuse me! What do you know about my situation, my goals, my restrictions, or my concerns?” The walls on each party’s mental box grow so thick that no communication can get through. A could have had a much more positive effect by asking, “Have you considered doing  X?” then following up on B’s answer with more questions to get a thorough understanding of the constraints and come up with ways to surmount them.

In short, if you want to increase your influence, learn to phrase your statements as questions. If you just want to tell people what’s on your mind, write a blog. :)

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