Play Dumb to Get What You Want: The Question Tactic in Negotiation

Negotiation skills aren’t just for entrepreneurs on Shark Tank. Federal managers can also benefit from mastering these valuable skills. In The Government Manager’s Guide to Contract Negotiation, LeGette McIntyre offers some very specific tactics that could help any fed facing a tough negotiation. Here’s a great example from the book that McIntyre calls “The Question Tactic.” Try this in your next meeting and let us know your results.


In any negotiation, knowledge is power. You increase your power relative to the other side as you increase your knowledge about it. Use questions to probe for answers that will increase your information about the other side. Dig for more information about its position, interests, needs, hidden agendas, and so forth. In a negotiation, acting dumb is smart! When you ask questions, you tap into the tendency for people to want to help out folks they regard as less informed or less intelligent than they are. It makes them feel important. So ask questions that make the other side feel superior, such as, “I’m not sure I fully grasp all the intricacies in your proposal. Would you mind explaining them to me again?” Or, “I know the dollars you are proposing are backed up with sound facts, but for some reason I’m just not getting it. Can you explain to me how you came up with these figures?” Notice that you are asking for help in both these examples. Get in the habit of asking that all-important question, “Can you help me…?” That’s almost guaranteed to trigger the human need for the other side to feel smart and superior, and the negotiators will give you information they otherwise wouldn’t have. You also should use questions to test the credibility of the “facts” the other side is asserting. Get good at asking open-ended questions that start with “how,” what,” “what else,” “which,” and “why.” Some examples: “How did you come up with those figures?” They now have to defend their position with additional facts, and remember, any additional information shifts power. “What would you do if you were in my shoes and someone gave you that choice?” This has the added benefit of bringing them around to your side, even if it’s just a little bit. “What is really important to you?” Always follow up with “what else is important?” If they see you as caring for their position, they are likely to be more open sharing information with you. Then, ask them “which of these things is more important to you?” This gives you insight into their “must” and “give” positions. Test their credibility by asking “why do you think that position is fair?” That puts them on the defensive to justify their position. Notice that all these questions are open-ended and can’t be answered by a simple “yes” or “no” or with some finite fact. They require elaboration, which will give you more information. Closed-ended questions run the risk of eliciting a simple answer and nothing more. For example, if you ask, “Don’t you think your price is a little too high?” they may answer with a simple “no.” That doesn’t give you much information. If you ask “when will you be able to deliver?” they can answer with one date. Again, you aren’t gaining useful information. Get in the habit of asking open-ended questions! Also practice parroting. For example, if they say “your required delivery date is unrealistic,” simply regurgitate their own statement back at them in the form of a question. In this case, say “You feel our delivery date is unrealistic?” The way they answer that question could give you important insight into what they’re thinking. Notice I didn’t ask “why” they felt our delivery date was bad—that sometimes throws up warning flags. I simply restated their assertion in the form of a question using the word “feel.” That simple word “feel” can be important to add to your vocabulary. If they say something like “our standard company policy is never to offer extended warranties,” simply respond with “and how do you feel about that policy?” Sometimes this type of question can smoke out whether or not there is any give in the position. After you ask a question, be silent and wait for the answer. Avoid the temptation to elaborate. If you do, you negate the effect of pulling info from the other side by asking the question. To make matters worse, now more information is flowing from your side instead of the other way around. Silence is golden, and it’s also a crucial skill you have to work at developing to be a successful negotiator.

Excerpted with permission from The Government Manager’s Guide to Contract Negotiation by LeGette McIntyre, a book in the new series The Government Manager’s Essential Library. © 2013 by Management Concepts, Inc. All rights reserved. To learn more about negotiation tactics read the Government Manager’s Guide to Contract Negotiation or take a course on Negotiation Skills.

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