Skilful questioning, careful listening

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014

The skilled negotiator will be aware of the impact of good questions in a negotiation.

For example building relationships, learning, avoiding misunderstanding, mitigating emotion (health warning! tone, body language and wording needs to be considered carefully – actually true for the other examples as well) – and most importantly persuading the other party to your way of thinking; achieving your planned outcomes.

At the planning stage (btw the most important stage of a negotiation – even though it’s undertaken before engaging with the other party) it is necessary to decide what information and reactions are required and the questions which will elicit the necessary response.

This may mean drafting the questions before entering the negotiation. Not everyone feels writing down the questions is necessary – I’m just giving you a “grey-haired” view – and if your want to forget questions, the order of questions, the exact worked-out form of words of a questions – that’s fine by me :)

Questions should be asked one at a time, ensuring that an answer is obtained before moving to the next one. If an evasive response is made the question should be repeated until it is answered, or until it is obvious that it will never be answered.

A golden rule of asking questions is not to ask supplementary ones, until the original one has been answered (hence my recommendation to write down the questions for reference).

Questions can be classified according to their intent.

The following listing gives 10 major types of questions:


1. “Direct” These demand a “yes” or “no” response, e.g., – ‘Can your company meet the delivery schedule?’

2. “Overhead” Used to introduce an issue, establish the limitations of a discussion or for defining terms on which there may be a misunderstanding – ‘What is your attitude towards providing us with cost data?’

3. “Factual” Phrased to elicit information, but which cannot be answered Yes or No – ‘When you calculated the learning curve, how did you estimate the labour cost and resource?”

4. “Requiring explanation” These are prefixed, why, when, where, what, how, which and who, e.g., ‘What system does your buying department use to evaluate suppliers?’

5. “Ambiguous” Framed to have one or two meanings. ‘Will you explain your overhead rates? They don’t look right to me. Do they seem right to you?’

6. “Controversial” Used as a smokescreen or to arouse an emotional response. “I cannot see us reaching agreement because you keep obstructing progress. Why can’t you change your attitude?”

7. “Provocative” Used to incite a response – ‘Can you negotiate or do you have to report back to HQ?’

8. “Reversed” Used to divert attention from yourself back to the questioner – ‘You asked my view on liquidated damages what is your view?'”

9.”Negative” One of the greatest weaknesses in a negotiation is the negative question, ‘You can’t give us a discount can you?’ This invites the response NO! Negative questions undermine your case and are to be avoided.

10. What would you add as a major type of question? – drop me a note – I’d love to hear your thoughts.


Importantly; ensure there is sufficient time for the other party to answer the questions.

Silence and stillness (I’m no expert on body language but do recognise the value of non-verbal communication–in context), on your part, is key.

and then…


They may need thinking time before they answer, so don’t just interpret a pause as a call for you to fill the room with noise.

                Skillful questioning needs to be matched by careful listening so that you understand what the other party really mean with their answers.

The take-away:  The more you push the balance in favour of your planned questions, the more the negotiation will go your way, then the more likely your outcomes will be achieved.

Which is not at all a bad place to be.


PS More on negotiation skills here.



Here’s how we can help you…

Brian Farrington, works with procurement teams to help them improve the way they buy. And we’re increasingly working with professional service firms to help them improve their relationships with clients’ procurement teams. We provide some valuable free resources, like ‘Think Procurement’  (sign-up for free, below) for more useful(?) insights – and opinion – on procurement, risk, tendering and negotiation straight to your inbox.

Please call me on 01744 20698 or contact me online.

Also, don’t forget to check out the free procurement risk demo at Procurisk®.