The Art of Coaxing Out Information in a Negotiation

By Consumer Dummies

Effective listening requires probing, especially in a negotiation. No one says everything you want to hear in the exact order, depth, and detail that you prefer. You have to ask. No phrase describes the job of questioning better than tickle it out. Questions are a way of coaxing out information that you want or need.

In a trial, the question-and-answer format rules the proceedings. Attorneys and the judge can talk to each other in declarative sentences, but all the testimony is presented in the somewhat artificial format of question-and-answer. In court, the purpose of every question should be to obtain specific information. If the question isn’t answered directly, it needs to be asked in another way.

The rules in the courtroom are specific; as a matter of etiquette, you should apply similar rules in a business meeting. For example, courtesy prohibits you from barraging the other side with rapid-fire questions; court rules prevent the same thing.

Developing the ability to ask good questions is a lifelong effort. If you have the opportunity to observe a trial, notice that the primary difference between the experienced attorney and the less-experienced attorney is the ability of the former to ask the right question at the right time. Almost without fail, the key question is not a bombastic, confrontational inquiry, but a simple, easy-to-understand question designed to extract specific information.

An excellent example of tickling it out occurred in the O. J. Simpson murder trial during the questioning of police officer Mark Fuhrman. Lengthy, soft-spoken questions led up to the simple query, “In the last ten years, have you used the ‘n’ word?” “No,” the officer replied. “Are you sure?” the attorney asked. “Yes, sir,” Mark Fuhrman responded. There were no fireworks, no victory dances at that point, but the quiet exchange permanently altered the trial.

Because Fuhrman’s statement wasn’t true, the defense was able to call witness after witness to impeach his testimony. Eventually, the truth about Fuhrman’s behavior smashed against that statement so explosively that every other piece of evidence was damaged. Fuhrman and all his co-workers were hurt by those brief words so gently tickled out during questioning.

Remember Columbo? The famous detective, performed so consistently by Peter Falk, perfectly demonstrates the key skill of a good negotiator: asking really good questions. You will find Columbo using every type of question and listening to the answer. No single source better demonstrates how to ask questions. You can learn much more from Columbo. Study the man. Let him be your mentor as he entertains you. He also has incredible integrity. He sets his goal and never wavers. His steely determination brings victory in the toughest of circumstances.

Battling the jargon in a negotiation

Don’t be shy or embarrassed about asking someone to clarify a statement. Many people use jargon or shorthand when they talk, so you can’t always be sure of what they mean.

However, the situation is slightly more difficult when you’re both in the same industry. You may feel embarrassed to ask for the meaning under that circumstance, because you think that you should know. You can handle this situation by saying, “Just to be sure that we’re using our shorthand in the same way, tell me exactly how you define XYZ.” When the other person gives you his or her definition, use it. Here are three useful responses when the other party defines a term for you:

  • “That’s great! We use that phrase the same way.”
  • “Glad I asked; we use that phrase a little differently, but we can go with your definition.”
  • “Thanks, I just learned something new.”

If you really think the other person is miles off the target and some real damage may be done if you use the word his or her way instead of your way, say: “We should define that term in the written agreement so others won’t get confused. You and I know what we are talking about, but we want to be sure that everyone else does, too.” Don’t get into a battle over definitions.

There’s another situation in which you may run into jargon. Some people, particularly doctors, lawyers, and accountants, use jargon to impress others with their knowledge, power, or position.

As often as not, they use this device on their own clients. Use the preceding techniques to get clear on the conversation. If the problem is chronic, look for another professional to serve your needs.

Clarifying relativity in a negotiation

Requiring others to define relative words is just as important as asking them to explain specific pieces of jargon. Relative words are nonspecific, descriptive words that only have meaning in relation to something else.

Here are some examples of relative words that can create a great deal of confusion:

  • Cheap
  • High quality
  • Large
  • Many
  • Soon
  • Substantial

Don’t be shy about asking for clarification when someone lays one of these words on you. If the person insists on using generalities, as some people do, press for a range. If you still don’t get a specific answer, supply two or three ranges and force the person to choose one.

Let’s say your new customer says, “We’re thinking of placing a big order with you.” That’s good news if you and your new customer both use the words “big order” the same way. But you need to ask for specifics. If your customer doesn’t answer with a number, you can say, “Do you mean more like ten, or maybe about a hundred, or would it be closer to a thousand?” Whatever the answer is, just say “thank you.” Don’t belabor the point that you wouldn’t call that a “big order.” You should make a note of the information, as well.

These situations offer a great opportunity to find out more about the company that you’re dealing with. It’s a good time to ask questions about the normal size of the orders from this company, why it’s changing now, and other pieces of information that will help you service this client much better.